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Democrats' Game: Hot Potato?


The House Democrats have been winnowed down to their base. Whatever they really think about the election results -- and there are arguments on both sides -- they cannot admit that they made a mistake in pushing for comprehensive health care reform. The loss of sixty-five seats must be cast as a noble sacrifice for the greater good.

As with all liberal sacrifices, of course, it is mostly someone else whose wealth or position is being offered up. In this election it was mostly the seats of the "insufficiently progressive" members of the Democratic caucus that were sacrificed. For any Democrat who survived the election and wants to stay in Congress there is probably more risk in moving to the center than in staying the course. So keeping Nancy Pelosi as Democratic Leader makes perfect sense. With Obama, Pelosi, and Reid still in office -- and Hillary Clinton denying any interest in an insurgency -- there is no one left even to speak for the endangered moderate Democrat.

Of course, Obama's reelection is essential to ensure that the Democratic sacrifices of 2010 were not in vain. The outcome of that race depends, at this point, almost exclusively on two factors the Democrats cannot control -- the unemployment rate and the selection of a Republican Presidential candidate. It is not impossible for an economy to come roaring back. Ronald Reagan was fortunate enough to see the unemployment rate drop by amost two percentage points after his mid-term losses in 1982. In the meantime, it is the Senate Democrats who will be on the firing line in the upcoming battle over Obamacare.

The fascinating question is whether the large class of Senate Democrats who are up for re-election in 2012 will fall on their swords for the President or his legislative legacy. When a House-passed repeal bill heads to the Senate, Harry Reid and the Democratic majority will face two critical questions. First, should they filibuster to ensure that the repeal bill does not even come up for a vote? Second, if the bill does come to a vote, will at least four moderate Senators join their 47 Republican colleagues and actually vote to repeal Obamacare?

A Democratic filibuster could be a dangerous strategy. For one thing, the filibuster would be page-one news as long as it lasts. It would play into the Republican narrative that the health bill, whatever its merits, was imposed on the country by an arrogant Washington elite. Even Obama's defenders admit that he failed to properly "sell" or "market" the bill. How can they argue against having another opportunity to explain it, followed by an up-or-down vote?

The longer the filibuster goes on, the more it will make Senate Democrats look as though they are unwilling to "move on" to other important aspects of the people's business, like a jobs bill. If Republicans are clever they may try to make it look as though the Democrats are shutting down the Senate -- just the way House Republicans appeared to be shutting down the government under Bill Clinton.

If it comes to a vote on the merits some Democratic Senators may want to vote for repeal -- but can they? Perhaps they can argue to their liberal supporters at home -- and their House colleagues -- that it is a harmless vote, since Obama will inevitably veto the repeal bill. Perhaps they can argue that all they really doing is sending a message to Obama that he should consider making some changes in a bipartisan compromise bill. Either way, look for long floor statements like those the Democrats made when they voted to support the Iraq war -- explaining that they weren't really voting to go to war, only to send a message.

Of course, a Senate vote in favor of repeal would not be completely harmless, even if the bill were vetoed. Most interestingly, it could affect the way the Supreme Court views the law when it comes up for Constitutional review. If Obama's veto is the only thing standing in the way of repeal, it will be far easier for the Supreme Court to consider invalidating the law on technical grounds without facing voter backlash. More about that in a future column.

For now, despite the horrific election results for the Democrats, it is pointless trying to get them to concede that they may have made any strategic errors. But actions speak louder than words. The Senate vote on repeal, which will come soon enough, will be the acid test of whether they really believe that the 2010 election was little more than a protest against a sour economy.

Donald B. Susswein is a Washington lawyer who practices and writes in the areas of taxation, tax and fiscal policy, and financial institutions and products. He served as an advisor on these issues to the Committee on Finance of the United States Senate. He writes a weekly column for Benzinga every Tuesday.


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Posted-In: Politics General