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Permanent Recess

The AWOL Democratic Senate.

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By FRED BARNES
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The Senate often goes into recess. This year it’s going a step further. It’s going into hibernation.

Photo of Barack Obama and Harry Reid

So for next fall, Harry and I have decided to just make stuff up.


Not turn out the lights, lock the doors, and leave town hibernation. But rather than go about its normal business—such as taking up more than two dozen bills approved by the House and awaiting Senate action—the upper chamber will limit itself to voting on a few items deemed helpful to President Obama’s reelection. These measures, mainly bits and pieces of Obama’s “jobs bill,” are not expected to pass. If they did, that would screw up the plan devised by Democrats.

Their strategy is for the Senate, after extending the payroll tax, to reject or ignore everything else and become part of a “do-nothing Congress” that will serve as the chief villain in the president’s campaign. Since the Republican-controlled House has been a graveyard for Obama’s agenda, it already fits the bill as a do-nothing institution.

But Democrats are in charge of the Senate, a problem for the “do-nothing” campaign. How could Republicans be solely to blame for obstructing Obama if they control only one chamber of Congress? Now we know the answer. Democrats will pretend Republicans actually run the Senate, too.

So far as I know, this has never been tried before. The Senate, after all, is a proud institution. To become a mere tool in the president’s reelection juggernaut is a step down. But even though Senate majority leader Harry Reid is hardly Obama’s biggest fan in Washington, he’s a willing partner in this political charade.

The Democrats’ best-case scenario is for voters to buy into the illusion of a Republican-led Senate. As Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, Reid’s deputy, has noted, many voters already have. This makes them susceptible to the notion that a “Republican Congress” is blocking legislation that would jolt the economy and create a wave of jobs. At least Democrats hope more voters are ready to swallow this canard.

Republicans fear the Democratic strategy might work. And they haven’t figured out how to combat it—other than to point to the feeble economic recovery, trillion-dollar deficits, a soaring national debt, a still-declining housing market, and a generally pessimistic populace. Those facts on the ground may be enough to defeat Obama, but maybe not.

To understand how a Senate-in-name-only became an important part of the Obama campaign, you have to hark back to the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress in September. That’s when he outlined his jobs bill, to be paid for by raising taxes on the well-to-do. It was a nonstarter. Since a number of Democrats opposed it along with most Republicans, it lacked majority support. Reid never brought the bill to a vote.

Instead he yanked out individual parts—infrastructure spending, aid to states to pay for cops and teachers—for “show votes.” To assure Republicans would vote no, he attached the parts to tax hikes. It was a trial run for 2012.

The next step was last fall’s bipartisan supercommittee that was supposed to agree on $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. Republicans believed it offered the president the opportunity to back tax reform to boost the economy. But Obama didn’t bite. He didn’t get involved at all.

After Obama’s September speech, Republicans sensed Democrats on the supercommittee lost their appetite for compromise. If they reached agreement with Republicans, it would undercut the idea of a do-nothing Republican Congress. Democrats continued to negotiate, even considering a tax reform plan (fewer loopholes, lower rates) proposed by Republican senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. For them to accept it, Republicans would have to let the Bush tax cuts expire. Democrats knew that would kill the deal.

Then came the December an-nouncement, while Obama was vacationing in Hawaii, that he was finished with his agenda except for the payroll tax cut and elements of his jobs bill. “The president will have a larger playing field,” White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said. Washington’s role would be minor.

Obama seemed to contradict this a few days later. “I want to look for every possible opportunity to work with Congress to move this country forward and create jobs,” Obama said in Shaker Heights, Ohio, on January 4. “I’m going to look for every opportunity to try to bridge the partisan divide and get things done.” He mentioned infrastructure and cops and teachers.

The president knows how to get those parts of his jobs bill enacted in a flash. The trick to getting Republicans to go along: Don’t attach the jobs measures to an increase in income tax rates that is anathema to Republicans. It’s that simple. Don’t hold your breath.

What’s neglected in all this is the Senate’s insistence on ignoring or killing legislation passed by the House. As far as Republicans are concerned, we have a do-nothing Democratic Senate. For instance, the Senate hasn’t passed a budget in 1,000 days. In 2011, it voted against the House-passed budget, then declined to offer one of its own. Faced with Republican threats to disrupt the Senate, Reid allowed a vote on Obama’s budget. The Senate rejected it 97-0.

The stack of bills the House dispatched to the Senate last year is large. It includes 16 measures to reduce the regulatory burden on various industries, 5 to spur entrepreneurship, and 5 to “maximize” domestic energy production. For those bills, the Senate is a morgue.

As usual, Republicans get no help from the media. GQ magazine’s recent list of “the 50 most powerful people in Washington” ranked House majority leader Eric Cantor first and Senate minority leader Mitch
McConnell second. The implication was Republicans run both houses of Congress. Harry Reid? He didn’t make the list.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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