Thursday, November 09, 2006

The casualties mount

With George Allen and Conrad Burns conceding defeat, the Democrats now control both houses of Congress.

The repercussions of their victory are still being felt. Besides Donald Rumsfeld resigning, Ken Mehlman is quitting as head of the Republican National Committee and it looks like John Bolton will fail to get confirmed as UN Ambassador.

Taking the Senate completely changes the balance of power. Controlling the House would have been big in its own right, allowing Democrats to advance their own proposals and quash Republican efforts. Owning the Senate magnifies that power, of course, allowing them to actually pass legislation and send it to the president's desk. But the real biggie is a power unique to the Senate: confirmation of presidential appointees. With Democrats taking the Senate, Bolton was finished. And now the Dems will be able to put pressure on Bush's judicial nominees for the final two years of his term.

What will it mean? That depends on how Bush, Republicans and Democrats proceed. In a world of rational actors they would horse-trade, swapping confirmation of Bush judges for passage of Dem legislation, while Bush wields a veto threat to mold that legislation as well as win passage of bills sought by the Republican minority.

In a world of egos, stubbornness, partisanship and payback, the Dems will marginalize the GOP the way the GOP marginalized Dems, the GOP minority will pull out all the obstructionist stops they used to decry and Bush and the Democrats will take turns quashing each others' initiatives.

The problem here is trust. Bush has a history of talking a good game about "uniting" and "reaching out", but his definition of that has generally been "let's talk nice while doing things my way." His effort to get Bolton confirmed before the Dems take over in January doesn't bode well in that regard. Both parties have a history of obstructing as the minority and of keeping the other party down as a majority. The Republican legislative "majority of the majority" rule -- only bills supported by a majority of Republicans would be sent to the floor for a vote -- was a particularly obnoxious version of the latter, essentially allowing a fourth of Congress to control the legislative agenda.

The Democrats, for their part, must be sorely tempted to launch dozens of investigations, reject all Bush nominees, gut every Republican legislative achievement and otherwise seek revenge.

I suspect it is only a matter of time before Congress and the White House are yelling at each other rather than speaking, and I cynically await the first Republican filibuster and the first expression of Democratic outrage at such obstructionist tactics.

But for now, let's give them the benefit of the doubt. In the "control both houses" link above, Democratic leaders appear to be sober and realistic about the situation.

"Our joy today will vanish if we can't produce for the American people," said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Senate Democratic campaign committee....

In reaching out to Republicans, though, Democrats pointedly noted that Republicans had not shown them the same consideration.

"They've set a bad example in not working with us," Reid said. "We're not following that example."

These are good rhetorical starts. And they've got two months to work out some deals before the new session begins. An early test for Bush will be the judicial nominees he chooses to send over; will he send moderates, or will he continue to nominate hard-line conservatives? An early test for Democrats will be the rules and legislative priorities they establish. Will they include Republicans, or marginalize them?

Time will tell.



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