Once again, an obstinate Republican minority in the Senate vetoes the majority will, this time on a stimulus package that had bipartisan legislative and broad public support.
Forty senators voted to filibuster the Senate version of the plan, a combination of tax rebate checks, business tax breaks and benefit changes designed to cushion the blow of the current economic downturn, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Fifty-nine senators voted to move the measure to a final vote, but it takes 60 votes to block a filibuster. In the end, Reid changed his vote to "no," a common procedural move that enables him to bring the measure back to the floor. The final vote was 58-41.
The defeat by the narrowest of margins nearly ensures passage of a less expensive stimulus plan fashioned by President Bush and House leaders, though the Senate may make some changes. But it keeps the government on track to begin sending hundreds of dollars in payments to most Americans this spring.
"Given a chance to act as recession looms, more than 40 Republicans today said no to helping 20 million seniors and no to 250,000 disabled veterans. They said no to those who have lost their jobs and no to small business," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said after the vote.
The Senate package, which included numerous provisions not offered by the House plan, attracted powerful supporters. Automakers Ford and General Motors, home builders, Realtors and mortgage bankers joined the AARP to press Republicans to embrace the Senate measure. Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) left the campaign trail to make rare appearances in the Senate chamber.
Over the past year, we've documented the routine use of the filibuster by the Republican minority to block measures supported by the Democratic majority and a majority of the American public. In December, the Senate Republican minority, led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, broke the all-time record for filibusters in a single Senate session in just over 11 months.
In this case, this band of Republicans set themselves up as judge, jury and executioner over an economic stimulus package that, while passed by the Democratic majority in the House, has been widely denounced as a weak political compromise with the Bush administration (particularly forcefully by Robert Borosage) that would not reach many of the people who are being most hurt by the oncoming recession.
That is why the Senate bill added provisions that would have extended benefits to working poor who do not pay income taxes and who therefore would not have gotten tax rebate checks under the House bill. Also excluded from the House bill, but added in the Senate bill, were seniors and disabled veterans who received at least $3,000 in Social Security or veterans benefits.
But the Republican lemmings who follow McConnell's lead appear to have been more concerned about doing the bidding of the White House—with McConnell claiming that the Senate package "might not even get signed by the president"—than doing any critical thinking about whether the White House-backed approach was best for the economy.
That critical thinking could have taken place in a House-Senate conference committee. If the Republican minority allowed the Senate bill to pass, the Senate would enter into negotiations with the House, whose bill the Senate Republicans indicated they preferred. Sure, House-Senate conferences are often messy affairs, but that is how the political process is supposed to work. That is where the compromises are supposed to happen.
For decades, that is how the process worked, until the Senate's most conservative Republicans decided that they had the unilateral right to cancel out the 2006 election returns that gave Democrats majority control of both houses of Congress. In fact, while they have the ability to do that, they don't have the right. That's why the Republicans need to be called on their obstructionist abuse of the filibuster every time it happens.