As bleak as prospects are for Democrats in the coming congressional elections, there is a tool at hand that could boost their fortunes: the filibuster.
But isn't that the reason it takes 60 votes out of 100 to pass legislation in the Senate? Isn't that what stalled Obama's health-care reform for a year and then, when a Republican was elected to Ted Kennedy's seat, effectively killed it for this Congress? Isn't that what allowed a few Republicans to hold up confirmations of dozens of senior officials nominated by the president to run his administration?
Well, yes. The filibuster is authorized by Senate Rule 22, and when I served as a legislative assistant to Sen. Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania in the 1960s, it was at least as much of an issue as it is today. It was used with great success by Southern Democrats and several Republicans to block civil-rights legislation. Clark, who served on the Senate Rules Committee, and several other Democratic senators tried at the opening of each new Congress to restore majority rule to the Senate, but they failed.
Efforts to reform the filibuster rule would just as surely fail today. It's too valuable to the minority party as a device for blocking the majority, and even senators in the majority are mindful of the day when they will be in the minority. So it's fine to talk about the virtues of democracy, but we don't have it in Congress.
But that doesn't mean that Senate Democrats can't use Rule 22 to their advantage. President Obama's proposed budget is full of ideas that are very popular with the general public - such as measures to rein in Wall Street bonuses, programs to create new jobs, a middle-class tax cut that applies pre-Bush tax rates to the very rich, and provisions for going after companies that hide their earnings overseas to avoid taxation, to name just a few.
If one assumes, as I do, that the Republicans' strategy for the rest of this Congress has one objective - to deny Obama any legislative victories - then the Democratic strategy should be clear: Force the Republicans to filibuster bills that most voters support.
This stratagem was not available to Democrats as long as there was a chance of passing health-care reform. Time was of the essence, and filibusters are designed to consume time. But if the Democratic program is well and truly stuck for the rest of the year, then time is a commodity in plentiful supply.
So why not force the Republicans to show their hand - to appear on the floor of the Senate and talk to death bills that the public wants? Simply bring a bill to the Senate floor (Harry Reid can still do that), force the Republicans to talk around the clock to block it, call a "cloture" vote to end debate and vote on the bill (which requires 60 votes to succeed), and lose - with a majority of senators, all Democrats, voting to bring the bill to a vote.
And when they're done with that one, bring up another, and another, with the same result.
Agreed, this doesn't sound like bipartisanship. But there has never been bipartisanship in this Congress, and at this point it's more important for Democrats to demonstrate that they are fighting for legislation that people want than it is for them to play along with that treacherous myth.
Winning by losing: Could it work for the Democrats?