I took part this evening in a short conference call with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and a few other bloggers. It got a bit heated. He passionately defended the Senate’s accomplishments and urged critics to acknowledge the difficult position Congress is in at the moment, with the omnibus budget bill approaching.
First, I asked him the question on everyone’s mind: Why not actually make the Republicans filibuster? Bill after bill keeps failing because it can’t get to 60 votes for cloture, but Republicans never have to take a public stand behind their obstructionism.
Kerry responded with clear frustration (it obviously wasn’t the first time he’d been asked). He mentioned that the Senate had filibustered in July, only to have everybody write "about how silly it was that the Senate was going through that exercise." With only 13 days left in the session, and no budget passed, there was real danger of a filibuster burning up the remaining time, no budget passing, and the U.S. government shutting down. "We lose on that one, trust me," he said, "Newt Gingrich played that hand, and look what happened." Right now, he said, the president has the upper hand. If the budget gets held up, it will be "’the troops don’t have the money in Iraq’, and so forth — we’ve been down that road before."
He predicted that when the Senate returns in January, "that’s a different issue … I don’t think you’re going to find any patience at all when we get back here," he said, "but at this particular moment, there’s just too much hanging in the balance to take out that kind of time and wind up with nothing done." Whatever is left outstanding, "whether it’s the energy bill or otherwise, we’re going to come back here and pound away on it."
Julia Bovey of NRDC asked about plans apparently afoot to move the massive nuclear subsidies from the energy bill to the budget bill. "It seems like we could have gotten a better bill from Republicans!" she fumed. What were Dems going to do about it? That’s what set Kerry off:
We’ll try and strip it out as soon as we have an opportunity to. That’s the unfortunate thing about the budget structure today: When you only have 51 votes, you’re left in a position where you have to negotiate. And you don’t even have 51 on some of these issues.
I know everybody in the country sits there and says, "why don’t you do this, you won control of the Congress?" The simple answer is, we don’t have 51 votes on most of these issues. … Everybody seems to just walk over this idea. It confounds me at times, to be honest with you. We’ve got people who … have to get elected in what are essentially Republican states. And sometimes they’re not with us on some of the things you think are the natural priorities of the Democratic Party. It’s just the way it is. Let alone the 51 votes — you’ve got to get 60 to pass something because somebody can do a filibuster, and then you’ve got to get 67 votes to override the veto of the president!
That’s why 2008 is so important. People need to go back and do basic political science here and recognize that you’ve got to win some of these votes.
He cited all the things Dems have been able to accomplish — "more people who have been helped, more money for education, more money for Pell grants, more money for transportation, more money for housing … run the list of the things that we’ve been able to do over the objection of Republicans" — and stressed again that though he and many others were frustrated, there’s just nothing to be done without more votes.
He also pointedly refused to say anything cross about the Democratic leadership. He said they’re working under difficult conditions and doing the best they can.
I certainly can see Kerry’s point about the political odds being stacked against them at this particular moment. They can’t just filibuster; it would likely spiral into a major budget crisis and a government shutdown. Maybe that would play out differently than it did when Gingrich did it — after all, Clinton was popular and Bush isn’t; Gingrich was seen as a petty boor, but the majority is solidly behind ending the war and boosting renewable energy — but it’s a huge, huge gamble, and if they lost it could imperil their chances in 2008.
Ultimately it will come down to what happens when they come back in January. Kerry didn’t come out and say it for sure, but the clear implication was that there will be much more appetite for a filibuster fight at that point. If they bring the tax package and the RPS back in a separate bill and fight like hell for it, I’m guessing all will be forgiven.
(Here’s Adam Siegel’s post on the call.)