AC360° Contributor and CNN Political Analyst
When I was reviewing the Senate races with a member of the Senate Democratic leadership in October of 2008, I was told that there was good news and bad news. The good news was that we could come close to 60 seats. The bad news was that approximately 10 of the potentially new senators voted like Republicans.
When I discussed this on CNN, Democrats were upset with me for undermining the sacred party unity theme, and Republicans claimed that I was just trying to counter the argument that the Senate would soon become an extreme liberal bastion. That experience just proved to me that when both parties criticize you, you are probably on to something.
Even before President Obama took the oath of office, that "something" came into focus. While the political pundits and media were focusing on the speculation around presidential appointments, the new Democratic majority in the United States Senate cast its first major policy vote on January 15, 2009.
The issue was whether or not to release the second half of the financial industry bailout fund. The vote did not receive extensive media attention and analysis, but was indicative of the new climate on Capitol Hill. President-elect Obama personally lobbied new and senior senators for this vote. Lawrence Summers, director-designate of the White House National Economic Council, made three visits to the Capitol and sent two letters to senators with his assurances that the program would be run with tough oversight and better management. When all was said and done, it took six Republicans to join with 46 Democratic senators in order to give the President-elect the 52 votes he needed for passage.
That vote now seems like ancient history. However, it was a very early indicator of this new Congress and the role it will play in shaping our national agenda. After the Republicans lost control of Congress in the 2006 election, a senior Republican House member said to me that they failed because they allowed themselves to become a shadow of the Bush Administration. As the Republican Congress lost their identity, they lost the Congress. There is no question that this Democratic Congress supports the Obama Administration and its goals. However, they have made it very clear since that January 15, 2009 vote that they are a separate and equal branch of government and expect to be treated accordingly.
The Democratic Congress has demonstrated that independence on numerous occasions in large and small ways as well as substantial and political ways. The Administration sought – and occasionally was forced into – legislative compromises on the stimulus plan, budget priorities and energy and global warming legislation. They confronted a bipartisan rejection by Congress for funds to close Guantanamo due to the lack of a plan for the prisoners.
Additionally, 10 Senate Democrats joined Republicans in April to protect more wealthy American families from the impact of the federal estate tax, a change that could cost the Treasury $100 billion over 10 years. A vote on an amendment that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to modify troubled mortgages was defeated when 12 Senate Democrats voted with 39 Senate Republicans Even the Administration's modest, if not token, proposal to cut $17 billion from 121 government programs ran into broad opposition on Capitol Hill.
The Obama Administration has not let these skirmishes and setbacks distract them from their ambitious goals and agenda. Their respect for the role of the legislative branch and a keen understanding of the diverse coalitions that built the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate has enabled them to pass significant legislation.
It also has built an inclusive climate for a discussion and possible formulation of comprehensive health care reform. Over the next several months, the political pundits will fill the air waves reciting their partisan and special interest talking points. However, their sound bites will be drowned out by the tragic realities of the health care crisis in American today – realities that impact both the medical community and the public.
President Obama has maintained the confidence and trust of the American people to lead this debate. Senators such as Edward M. Kennedy, the Chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Max Baucus, the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee; and Kent Conrad, the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee all have different approaches and proposals to address this crisis. They are working with senior Republican Senators such as Charles Grassley and Olympia Snowe in that mission.
The Democratic Congress has never been more geographically and philosophically diverse. This will produce a climate that defies traditional party politics and those seeking "one true answer." The demand for action by the American people, the diversity of the Congress and, yes, lack of partisan unity on this issue can forge a true coalition for comprehensive health care reform. In fact, that maybe the only way to get it.
Editor’s Note: Robert Zimmerman has been a Democratic National Committee member since 2000. He is a partner at Zimmerman/Edelson Inc., a marketing, advertising and public relations firm based in New York.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
Questions or comments? Send an email
Want to know more? Go behind the scenes with