Specter shift will not change reform prospects

April 29, 2009

John Kemp Great Debate— John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own —

Senator Arlen Specter’s decision to cross the aisle and join the Democratic Party hastens the extinction of moderate Republicans in the north-east and symbolizes their deep problems.

But it does not change the legislative landscape.

On the most contentious parts of the president’s program — cap-and-trade emissions program, healthcare and Social Security — the key divisions are among Democrats rather than between the parties. Specter’s defection numerically swells the party’s ranks but in practice brings the administration no closer to the magic 60 votes it needs to push through ambitious reform proposals.

Senate tradition allows even a single senator to block passage of legislation by filibustering it. Since time is precious, even the threat of a filibuster is usually enough to stop legislation in its tracks.

Rule XXIII (cloture) curtails the right of unlimited debate and caps further debate at 30 hours. But it can only be invoked with agreement of 60 senators (three-fifths of the chamber’s total membership).

So the real majority required to pass contentious legislation is 60 rather than 51 (50 assuming the vice-president uses his casting vote).

Such 60-vote majorities are rare. The last was in 1978. But the Democratic Party has been inching close. The party has support from 58 senators (56 elected as Democrats, 2 as independents). Specter’s defection will give it 59. If Democrat Al Franken is confirmed as the winner of the Minnesota’s disputed election by the state Supreme Court, the party will get the 60th vote it needs for a super-majority.

But American political parties are not homogenous. Legislators do not necessarily do the president’s bidding, even for one as popular as Barack Obama.

Until now, the threat of a filibuster sustained by the 41 Republicans in the chamber has masked divisions among Democrats themselves. If the Republicans are reduced to 40 votes and unable to block legislation, Democrats will find themselves in an uncomfortable spotlight.

Party divisions were on display earlier this month when 26 Democratic senators from industrial and Midwest states broke with colleagues from the coasts to bar the use of the expedited budget reconciliation process to pass climate change legislation using a cap-and-trade program.

On financial regulation, healthcare, and Social Security, the party is deeply split between liberals anxious to push ambitious reform, and centrists who favor a less radical approach. Given these divisions the president may not have 50 votes, let alone 60, with or without the support of Specter and Franken.

While the president may not be forced to negotiate with Republicans, the administration will still have to craft compromises between liberal and centrist Democrats.

Specter’s change of party makes little difference. Together with Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Specter was already one of the most liberal Republicans in the Senate. In many areas, the administration could already count on his support to assemble ad hoc 60-vote majorities even as a Republican. Nothing will change.

In others, especially climate change, Specter is likely to be anything but a reliable vote. Pennsylvania is a coal and industrial state. Like other senators, both Democrats and Republicans, sitting for these states, Specter has been wary of any cap-and-trade programme that would not include generous grandfather rights and free permit allocations for heavy industry.

The price of securing 60 votes for cap-and-trade — a long transition period coupled with generous exclusions or free permit allocations for heavy industry and coal producers — remains unchanged. A program can pass this year, but the number of votes that need to be bought from within the Democratic Party means it will be heavily watered down.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

You are quite correct that it is business as usual. We are still content to be thought of as “consumers”. People are all upset that the economic system is going down the drain. But why? What’s so bad about a system that relegates human beings to nothing more than money producers? What’s so bad about letting the system (a system that is only concerned with how much work it can squeeze out of you during an eight hour day), simply crash?

My parents, and grandparents’ generations did some amazing things in their lives. But for all of the work they’ve done, and for all of the societal contributions their work has provided, they and many like them still ended up poor and unable to acquire many of the most basic needs or comforts.

Many of their individual contributions go unhonored. This is proven by the fact that we have so many homeless veterans, and many of them have health issues that go untended. It’s proven by the fact that so many teachers, the shapers and openers of minds, also live at subsistence levels.

We want the president to “fix” the system so that we can have “jobs”. But what we mean is that we want to live meaningful productive lives that make us valuable to the communities we live in. And that the value be measured not just in monetary terms, but in human terms.

If Mr Obama truly wants to change the landscape, he can start by laying out standards of conduct that all business that operate in this country must follow. Corporations must be compelled under law to reinvest into the communities in which they do business. And to do so without advertising it. And that investment must be commensurate with the amount of wealth the business circulates/collects. Executives must be limited in the amount of compensation they receive, and any new financial system must prioritize currency as merely a medium of exchange and nothing more. The human being must be put at the center of every system we create. And the human must be of absolute highest value in any system.

Posted by Benny Acosta | Report as abusive

I’m thinking Specter just to to be that age where once he retires from politics he can feel like he did everything possible on both sides of the divide to help his country. I often times think about how many Republicans are secretly Democrats in their heart of hearts, but their realism (or pragmatism) suggests to them that the Republicans historically have been the party with the wind at their back so may as well try and make changes on the winning side vs. on the losing side.

Or maybe Specter just didn’t want to be on a party where friendship is defined as getting shot in the face by accident:
http://expattitude.blogspot.com/2009/05/ lewis-black-on-dick-cheney-hunting.html

Posted by Chloe | Report as abusive