Will Rogers, the political satirist, once quipped: " I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat." Well, this week, we were once again reminded of the wisdom of that remark.
On Wednesday, March 18, Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) announced that he had formed a coalition of "moderate" Democrats in the Senate which he named the "Moderate Dems Working Group." This group of senators is 14 Democrats plus icky Joe Lieberman (I-CT). The list of constituent members of this group is a veritable Who's Who* of Democrats who were always among the very first to bow to the Karl Rove lash back in the bad ol' days of Junior Bush, plus some incoming freshmen.
Senator Bayh's motivation, hidden, of course, behind expressions of a desire to promote "fiscally sustainable policies" is to get as much leverage as possible out of the Democratic majority in the Senate.
Here's how it works: For President Obama to get anything at all passed, he will need 60 votes. The Republicans have already demonstrated that, robbed of everything else, they will readily wield the once-obscure filibuster to block the President's agenda, if they can. That means, in addition to finding a Republican crossover vote, Obama will need to hold together all 58 (or 59, if Al Franken finally gets seated) Democrats/Independents in order to invoke cloture and end debate.
Unless factions are organized, the administration and the Democratic leadership in the Senate (Senator Harry Reid, Senator Dick Durbin, et alia) can work on senators independently to get their 60 votes. They can approach each senator independently and apply pressure in the time-honored manner: making promises, cutting deals, whatever.
By organizing his so-called "Moderate Dems Working Group," Senator Bayh establishes himself as a leader of a faction within the Senate. Now, Harry Reid or Rahm Emanuel will have to come to Bayh, as the spokesman of this faction, to make their deals.
There are a couple things here to consider.
- Firstly, this is good news in the sense that it further isolates the Republicans. Now, any incentive the administration had to deal with the GOP as a voting block is lessened. Instead of trying to win over a block of GOP votes, the administration can continue to pick off those one to three GOP senators it needs to get the agenda passed.
- Secondly, Bayh is gambling. If he can hold his group together and force alterations to the President's or the Democratic Leadership's agenda, he will have raised his influence in the Senate. If, however, his group lacks discipline and does not vote as a solid block, he comes out looking like a jack-ass.
- Lastly, President Obama has put forth an ambitious agenda. He's going to need every single one of the Democrats to get it passed. In a sense, Bayh has made the President's job a little easier. Dealing with a bloc of 15 senators (a bloc of 15 senators, mind you, that will always want to appear to be cooperative --at least, in public) will be much easier than trying to get 15 individuals on board. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Rahm Emanuel is, even now, working on Bayh, tempting him with some deal to make Emanuel's job a little easier. Bayh could, in effect, become another Democratic whip.
Well, it's the Senate, after all. You better be able to stand in there even when the pitch comes chin-high and inside.
Some liberal bloggers are positively sputtering with rage over what they perceive as a lack of solidarity within the Democratic caucus. But I don't see it that way. To me, Bayh's move reveals a new reality in the Senate. And that is this: it belongs to the Democratic Party now. The Republicans are as close to irrelevant as is possible.
Bayh's move shows a confidence, not only in the Democrats current grip on the Senate, but in their prospects of holding on to it in the future.
Politics in the US Senate is a fascinating game of cut-throat. I'll enjoy watching it all play out.
* Besides Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman, the other senators in the group are:
Tom Carper - Delaware
Blanche Lincoln - Arkansas
Mark Udall and Michael Bennet - Colorado
Mark Begich - Alaska
Kay Hagan - North Carolina
Herb Kohl - Wisconsin
Mary Landrieu - Louisiana
Claire McCaskill - Missouri
Ben Nelson - Nebraska
Bill Nelson - Florida
Jeanne Shaheen - New Hampshire
Mark Warner - Virginia