Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy holidays, Mr. McConnell

The holiday furlough is on in Washington, the 111th Congress officially history. Assuming the lawmakers in Congress all got home on Friday, flying into the teeth of a severe storm system that’s since enveloped about a third of the country, there’s little else to do but hunker down. For the incoming herd of lawmakers who’ll be part of the 112th Congress, the blizzard of legislation passed by its predecessor in the days before Christmas ought to be another kind of weather advisory.

More than once in recent months, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, has gone out of his way to vow Republican unity against the legislative agenda of President Obama, at one point even saying that — never mind the needs of the country — the Republicans’ job one was to ensure that Barack Obama is a one-term president.

Three historic votes that brought down the curtain on the 111th should give McConnell pause. In those votes, Republicans crossed the aisle, in some meaningful numbers, to convey unto Obama and the Democrats victories where weeks before defeats were grimly expected. With these Republicans apparently ready to step out on principle (as well as or rather than party), with the wave of legislation just made law as proof that it’s possible, there’s reason to believe that things might really get done in the new Congress, and that it might happen on something approaching a bipartisan basis. At least in the Senate.

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The tax-cut vote in the Senate might well have been expected. At day’s end, it was a more or less expediently organic hybrid of the Obama administration’s objectives (locking in a tax cut for the middle class) and those of the Republicans (locking in the Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires).

The fact that other elements of the $858 billion bill — extended benefits for the unemployed, tax credits for families and small businesses, and a payroll tax for working everyday people — were generally Democratic ideas didn’t stop Republicans from supporting it. That’s something of a victory for bipartisanship right there.

But on the controversial DADT repeal issue, a conservative-values tripwire, no fewer than eight Republican senators broke with the body of their party and voted with the Democrats to repeal the 1993 law on gays and lesbians in the military — despite the thundering filibluster of Arizona Sen. John McCain, who finally opposed DADT repeal on the laughable grounds that the economy was “in the tank.”

Eight Republicans — Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Ensign of Nevada, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the outgoing George Voinovich of Ohio and frosh Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois — voted to repeal.

Ensign, a man whose previous ethical lapses led to grief and calls for his resignation, recognized history when he saw it. “"[I]t is my firm belief that any American wishing to fight and potentially die for this great country ought to be able to do so regardless of sexual orientation," he said in a statement. "These fine individuals should not have to hide who they are."

It was the second triumph for the reason of political pragmatism over the reflex of party divisions in about as many days.

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The New START treaty was next. Despite the objection of Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (who opposed ratification of the treaty Obama signed with Russia in April on various grounds, including because he didn’t have time to study the matter and didn’t want to work through Christmas), the Senate ratified the treaty with the expected support of the Senate Democrats … and 13 Republican senators.

What’s striking is the nucleus of GOP senators in some of these votes: Collins and Snowe have always been willing, if not eager, to buck their party with a daring and an irregularity that would seem to justify their being called “moderates.”

Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has a reputation of voting independence, walking away from his party in June 2009 to vote for confirmation of Harold Koh, a supporter of gun control, as State Department Legal Adviser. He went off script again later that year, when he backed President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.

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Brown, the man occupying Ted Kennedy’s seat in the Senate, inherited more than the office and the title. He also inherited a constituency that’s been traditionally liberal-to-moderate on social issues (hence Teddy’s long run as Massachusetts senator). Brown’s votes on DADT and New START indicate both his own evolving centrist convictions and a pragmatic sensitivity to the people he represents.

And we can’t forget Murkowski, whose midterm victory over a Tea Party darling anointed by political personality Sarah Palin frees her to pursue a centrist role in the Senate, one consistent with her state’s practical, independent identity.

“Murkowski is already showing a fierce independent streak, becoming the only Republican to cast votes on all four items on President Barack Obama’s wish list: a repeal of 'don’t ask, don’t tell,' a tax-cut compromise, the START deal and cloture for the DREAM Act,” Politico’s Meredith Shiner reported. “Now, she heads back to the Senate with a fresh six-year term without owing much to either her home state party establishment or her Washington leadership."

“She's a person who makes up her own mind, does what she thinks is right and always keeps the concerns of her state at the forefront,” Sen. Collins told Politico, recognizing a kindred spirit when she sees one.

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The votes last week may have been an anomaly, the last big Senate legislation we’ll see passed into law with such numerically promising Republican approval. But McConnell’s recent implied threats of congressional gridlock may be missing some teeth.

The McConnell agenda flies in the face of an electorate that just rejected gridlock in the November midterms. It can’t (or shouldn’t) have escaped McConnell’s attention that Obama’s job performance poll numbers moved higher during and after the wave of lame-duck legislation made law — a clear indicator of an electorate that’s hungry for results and action, not the gridlock McConnell's been threatening. The senator can’t afford to forget that.

Also, the McConnell agenda is one from the man who presides over Senate Republicans, who are in the minority. Last week’s game-changing votes in the Senate, made with the participation of several Senate Republicans, suggest that McConnell’s presumably uniform bloc of antagonists is less than uniform after all.

Everything McConnell hopes to achieve in the Senate necessarily calls for the full support of Senate Republicans (who, being in the minority, need every vote they can get). Depending on the legislation, of course, the party contraries who helped make last week’s historic votes historic could be more than enough to move a close vote in the Democrats’ direction.

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The House is another matter. The agenda of the Tea-fueled House Republicans coming to Capitol Hill next week is still to be fully articulated beyond the bullet points they used in the campaign and a general intent to curb spending no matter what. We’re waiting on the road map, the detailed legislative vision of the next House Speaker, Ohio’s well-tanned John Boehner, he who gets verklempt reading the Yellow Pages. It’s anyone’s guess how the two flavors of House Republicans will taste together.

“Any comprehensive solution that sets the nation on a path toward fiscal health will mean that at least some of us pay higher taxes,” Eugene Robinson writes in today’s Washington Post. “I wish Boehner luck in explaining this fact of life to his Tea Party freshmen. He'll have a hard enough time even persuading them to keep the government solvent by voting to increase the debt ceiling, which will soon be necessary.”

The recent wavelet of Senate Republican support for cherished Obama White House initiatives suggests that some in the GOP’s ranks — exhausted by defending gridlock as a strategy for the last two years, unimpressed with using gridlock as a strategy for the next two years, and not so automatically determined to make Obama a one-term president — are ready to be real lawmakers when the 112th gets underway.

If the economy improves, as is expected by many economists, those senators will likely be joined by others freed of the immediacy of election-year politics, free to vote their consciences on what works for their constituents — what gets their constituents work — and not for what’s ideologically correct. And if that takes hold back home, watch for the Tea Party crowd in the House to quickly reconcile its PowerPoint rhetoric with the reality of facing voters impatient with Congress, eager to see more tabling of party identities in order to get something accomplished.

Happy holidays, Mr. McConnell. We’ll see you next year.

Image credits: McConnell: Official Senate photograph. McConnell and President Obama: Pete Souza/The White House. Scott Brown: public domain. Lisa Murkowski: Associated Press via Politico. Senate START treaty cloture vote: C-SPAN. John Boehner and McConnell: via gopleader.gov.

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