Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Another Strike Against Potential Filibusters.

One more battle in the Congressional War on Obstructionism has been concluded. Mark Begich has officially defeated Alaskan senator Ted Stevens. The count of absentee and early ballots gave the Mayor of Anchorage a 1.2% lead over the incumbent. Stevens was the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, but saw his reputation shattered after being convicted on seven counts of corruption charges. Apparently he accepted money ($250K) in the form of personal gifts from VECO, an oil-services company. Even had he won the election, it's doubtful that he would have been allowed to occupy his seat. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was planning to call upon Stevens to resign. The GOP mercifully postponed an expulsion vote until after the results of the count.

With Begich joining the majority, the Democrats now number 58 within their caucus. His victory makes him the first Alaskan Democratic Congressman since Mike Gravel left the Senate in 1981. Interestingly, the last member of the House of Representatives to represent the party was Nick Begich (Mark's father) , who disappeared in a flight over Alaska in 1972. Begich will be the only legislator in the Upper House who does not have a college degree. He's got a history of barely squeezing into his elected positions. After running unsuccessfully to be the Anchorage Mayor twice, he found his third try charmed when he won by just eleven votes. He also benefited from a law passed during that cycle that allowed a candidate to win the mayoralty without a majority of the vote.

In other recent news, "Independent" legislator Joe Lieberman will remain with his former party, as he is being allowed to keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee. A secret vote on his future weighed heavily in his favor (42-12). He reportedly appreciates the gesture as one of "reconciliation" rather than "retribution". Closer to the truth is the longshot chance that the Democrats may attain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate if everything falls their way. The two remaining contests involve a hand recount of 2.9 million votes in Minnesota, where Norm Coleman (R) leads Al Franken (D) by a mere 215 votes, and a runoff in Georgia pitting incumbent Saxby Chambliss (R) against Jim Martin (D).

My prediction prior to the election was that the Dems would end up with 57-58 seats in the Senate, and they have now reached that mark. What's particularly amusing is that several "conservatives" on talk radio were crowing about the Democratic "failure" to gain their objectives in Congress, despite the fact that they expanded their numbers in both houses. Despite the difficult odds, they now have a slim possibility of being able to defeat any GOP filibusters. I know that scares the hell out of the Republicans, but it would certainly prime the pumps of the Obama administration. It would mean, that instead of merely focusing on undoing the disastrous policies of the Bush Administration, the Dems could actually pursue a progressive agenda.

In order to force cloture (end discussion on a proposed bill for a vote), there needs to be 60 senators who want to move legislation forward. Perhaps the Democrats will be able to isolate a few Republican dissidents, and make deals that defeat filibusters. That techique gets its title from the Spanish word for "pirate" or "freebooter". It involves participating in an endless stream of debate in order to stall action on a bill. The last session of Congress saw the GOP minority employ this tactic more than any group of senators in US history. There is no doubt that it will continue to do anything it can to thwart the Democratic agenda. Besides going "nuclear" (changing the rules on the Senate floor), there are not going to be a lot of options to curb procedurally-enforced inaction.

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