AC360° Contributor, CNN Political Analyst
Yesterday, on the Sunday talk shows, Democrats unveiled their new stimulus talking point. The Democratically-led House may have added unnecessary, interest group spending, but "The Senate" (unfurl the flags and blare the trumpets here) is where legislation goes to be improved upon by the gray-haired wise men and women of the greatest deliberative body.
In my three years working for then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, I recalled pitched battles where Senators of both parties attempted to lard up bills with unrelated and, often times, unnecessary spending. Remember the Bridge to Nowhere? That boondoggle came to you via Alaska's Senator Ted Stevens.
My former boss even urged the President to threaten a veto on the emergency Katrina relief bill back in 2006 because Senators were going hogwild. In fact, the Republican-led House bill totaled less than the President's request, while the Senate version exceeded it by $14.4 billion. Some extraneous items managed to get cut like $15 million for seafood promotion and $1million for a study of Hawaiian dams and reservoirs. But Senators did not show superior restraint to their House counterparts. My former boss, it should be said, did, and voted against the lard-ridden legislation.
I called my former colleague, Marty Gold, the unofficial dean of the Senate who teaches incoming Senators the legislative ropes, and who has literally written the text book on Senate procedure. I asked him what he thought about the new Democratic talking point on the upcoming Senate debate. He was elegant, but blunt.
"It's not that the Senators are inherently more politically mature. They're cut from the same the cloth, but are operating in chambers where different rules apply. Once you get into these pork barrel emergency bills, then the normal deliberative process goes out the window. It's their natural instinct to do that."
So who puts the brakes on?
"If the idea is that the Senate is a break on the House, it requires a filibuster sustaining minority. You need a Senate minority that has sufficient power, or a White House veto. In this case, the President is not likely to apply the brakes. If he gets a bipartisan bill, it will be because bipartisanship was forced by the rules of the chamber. Senate Democrats are dealing because they have to deal. If they didn't, you'd see the same interest groups. Look, many of the same Senators came from the House."
And as for President Obama's overtures to Republicans? The Super Bowl watch party, and paying the Republican caucus a visit. Marty points out that it's smart politics. "A bipartisan vote helps to neutralize Republicans. And if they resist his overtures, it makes them look small. He can say he tried and got the back of the hand. He has every incentive to reach out."
And one last thing, Marty pointed out that if you give the Democratic majority what they really want - a filibuster-proof majority - today's talk of sober bipartisanship will be a quaint and distant memory. Without the political restraint of a potential filibuster, the restraints on the majority evaporate.
So, Norm, if you're reading this blog out there in Minnesota, Senate Republicans are counting on you to keep up the fight.
And Judd, get that Senate seat deal signed, sealed and delivered before you make the Commerce post yours.
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