The GOP Knows How to Wield Its Power. Will Democrats Know How to Wield Theirs?
By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Regardless of whether Republicans in the upper chamber are in the majority or minority, their leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, takes advantage of every opportunity to obstruct his opponents and advance his own goals. Bipartisanship is unknown to him, and consistency is of no importance—only pragmatism. McConnell’s bait-and-switch on Donald Trump’s impeachment trial—refusing to try Trump before he left office, and now maintaining it’s too late to do so because Trump is no longer President—is but the latest example of his perfidy.
It is well known that McConnell, as Senate Majority Leader during the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, prevented any consideration of Merrick Garland, Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court.
Less remembered, perhaps, is that McConnell, as Minority Leader during the earlier years of Obama’s administration, also used his party’s power—the filibuster—to delay and block Obama’s appointments and legislative agenda. But when his party took power under the Trump Administration, McConnell changed the rules to make a key aspect of that same filibuster ineffective—permitting the Republicans to install Neil Gorsuch as a Supreme Court justice with a simple majority vote rather than the 60 votes generally required to overcome filibuster.
Yet now, when Republicans are again in the minority, McConnell has tried to hold organization of the new Senate hostage to his bid for a guarantee that Democrats won’t eliminate the filibuster altogether. This would ensure it remains an available tool for Republican obstruction. McConnell even threatened to use the still-existing filibuster to delay a vote on the new Senate’s operating rules if he doesn’t get his way.
Without passage of those rules, the newly constituted Senate couldn’t even pick new committee chairs. Because of this standoff, many new senators have not been added to committees; there have been gaps in the majority on some committees; and Republicans have still headed some of them. This lost time is crucial, hampering the Senate’s ability to move forward to address countless national crises.
In addition, it has barely been three weeks since members of the Republican party backed a coup. But rather than hide their heads in shame, these members are brazenly trying to use procedural machinations to prevent Trump’s impeachment trial and sweep their complicity under the rug. Furthermore, adding insult to injury, the Republicans are already marshaling their public relations machine to twist President Biden’s call for unity to their advantage. They’ve complained that the Democrats are not making any “gestures” toward the minority or offering them concessions—as if that is how unity should be defined and they were the injured ones who should be appeased.
Whatever else one might say of the Republican Party, it is never in short supply of chutzpah. And it certainly understands how to practice realpolitik.
How are the Democrats responding to these tactics? Under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the House of Representatives has taken a lead in everything from passing needed legislation to investigations of the Trump Administration’s malfeasance, and a second impeachment. So, the House will be left to one side in this consideration.
To his credit, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has stood his ground concerning filibusters, refusing to give in to McConnell’s attempted extortion. On January 25, Schumer told Rachel Maddow that there were different things the Democrats could do to get around McConnell’s obstruction. When pressed for particulars, Schumer would only smile coyly, and repeat, “Stay tuned.” While Maddow and Schumer were mid-interview, word came that McConnell had announced he would drop his demand for his filibuster guarantee and accept Schumer’s proposal for Senate organization.
But despite this victory, Schumer’s proposal gives McConnell too large an opening for continued mischief. Without even requiring McConnell to bargain for it, Schumer proposed adoption of the power-sharing agreement used in 2001, the last time the Senate was composed of 50 members from each party.
Under that agreement, both party leaders would “seek to attain an equal balance of the interests of the two parties” in scheduling and considering Senate legislative business. Committees would have equal numbers of members from both parties. And members of either party could serve as presiding officers of the Senate. Usually, only senators from the majority party serve in that capacity.
Such power sharing is fine if both sides come to it in with an honest intent to cooperate. But the partisan polarization, particularly on the Republican side, is far greater than it was in 2001. And given McConnell’s opening gambit, more of his obstruction can be expected.
If a committee has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, and there is a tie vote, could Republicans use the tie to block legislation from proceeding out of committee? Could a Republican use his or her turn as presiding officer to engage in political sabotage?
Given these considerations, Schumer’s proposal gives away too much Democratic control. Schumer should take a lesson from McConnell and wield his power to the same degree McConnell would if their positions were reversed.
As for the Republican whining that the Democrats have called for unity but are not providing it, the GOP interpretation of unity is as far from any dictionary definition as its claim about who won the election was from fact. Unity means being united, one in spirit, and acting together for a common purpose—as, for example: we need unity to fight COVID-19.
Joe Biden pledged to be a president for all Americans, and to fight as hard for those who did not support him as for those who did. He has advocated that we talk with one another and listen to each other. His call for unity has been a radically welcome change from the abusive societal divisions cultivated by his predecessor.
But appealing to all American citizens to work together in overcoming our many crises is quite different from pledging to find unity with a minority party by adopting its priorities or acceding to its demands. That is especially true if the minority party is riddled with obstructionists, insurrectionists, and silent fellow travelers whose goal, based on past and current performance, is not to govern but to climb back into power and keep it—whether by hook, by crook, by voter suppression or even by violence.
Biden needs Democrats to respond loudly to the twisting of his message lest his meaning be redefined as the Republicans are now trying to do. And the President needs to be prepared to pass his program without Republicans on board. One must hope that though Biden, a decent man, is speaking softly, he is also carrying the proverbial big stick.
We need Chuck Schumer to be the tough Democratic leader who will use his power to the same degree as McConnell has done. This includes having his Majority Whip, Dick Durbin, mobilize Democratic unity on important issues, getting those who would stray to fall in line. It also necessitates that Democrats stop being so diplomatic and speak the plain, harsh truth about their opponents—who have no scruples against lying about them.
In a January 21 interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” journalist Anand Giridharadas said, “I actually think there is a huge problem in this country of only the bad guys having fight in them. You don’t want a society where only the people who want to do harm understand themselves to be in a battle.” On his blog, The Ink, Giridharadas argued that to win that battle, “We have to be willing to fight those people tooth and nail, and we have to fight to win.”
Joe Scarborough, a former hardline Republican who served in Congress, knows how his former party operates. On his January 21 “Morning Joe” program, Scarborough said that Republicans have a fighting mindset; that they see themselves in a battle for the soul of America and they live that battle 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Scarborough said that was how he thought when he ran for Congress and that’s how Democrats have to start thinking. Scarborough is right.
Democrats—from President Biden to Majority Senate Leader Schumer to every Democrat in the Senate—need to toughen up. They don’t need to fight dirty like many Republicans do, but they do need to start thinking like them. Because we need more than prudent, judicious statesmanship. Democrats must stand their ground and fight this battle for the soul of America with every nonviolent weapon at their disposal. Survival of our democracy depends upon it.
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.