Senators Want a Fight

By:  John Stanton
Roll Call

Junior Senate Democrats are pushing their leaders to take a much more aggressive stance toward the Republican minority, arguing that their defeat of Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-Ky.) unemployment benefits blockade this week proves a strategy of an active offense is far better than a passive defense.

“I think we’ve allowed the Republicans to get away with too much obstruction for too long without using our prerogatives,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who warned that Republicans can “look forward to seeing more” demonstrations of Democratic muscle like the one that forced Bunning to undertake an active six-day filibuster of the bill.

With the backing of Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and other members of the 2006 and 2008 classes hope to build on the success of the Bunning controversy to reshape party relations in the Senate.

According to Sanders, by actively engaging Republicans rather than simply allowing them to use holds or other procedures to stymie legislation, “it says to the whole country ... we’re going to stand and fight for you, and we’re not going to continue to roll over.”

“I think there is a growing understanding that the strategy of the last year hasn’t been working very well,” Sanders said Wednesday. The primary demand among the junior Senators is that the party reverse the pattern of allowing Republicans to obstruct their agenda and instead to provoke public fights over the substance of issues.

“It’s time to turn that around and ask them what they stand for and be more aggressive than we have been,” Sanders explained, adding that complaints of Democrats doing little to address public concerns are valid. “I think that’s a fair criticism” given the level of obstruction, Sanders said.

Indeed, the junior Senators’ demand for a more aggressive posture is not being embraced only by Durbin, but also by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and a wide swath of the Conference.

For instance, with Bunning’s filibuster in full swing and Republicans beginning to break from their unpredictable colleague, Reid asked Durbin during Tuesday’s Conference lunch to do a presentation on options to force the GOP’s hand.

These included conducting an all-night session, forcing late-night “live quorums” that would require Senators to come to the chamber floor or even using an obscure procedural tactic through which the presiding officer of the Senate could, during a lull in debate when no quorum call was under way, force a vote on the unemployment benefits bill.

In previous Conference meetings, the mere mention of such aggressive tactics raised objections from more established Democrats. These Senators, often including Reid, argued that such steps would only antagonize Republicans and further degrade the legislative process.

But several Democrats said Tuesday’s lunch was different.

While Durbin’s proposals had the support of the junior Members and like-minded Senators such as Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), there was virtually no opposition within the Conference to the idea of forcing Republicans into a lengthy public fight.

The House and Senate Democratic caucuses have long been dominated by senior members of the party, but Whitehouse and his colleagues have the ear of Durbin, who was the leader of Thursday’s floor fight with Bunning.

A senior leadership aide praised Durbin’s work with the chamber’s backbenchers — not only in halting the filibuster, but in turning the controversy into a political liability for Republicans. “I think Durbin gets all the credit for this thing. ... It was a strong few days for him,” the aide said.

Observers said the junior Senators were brought together by their relatively short terms in the Senate — and a shared sense that their party has allowed Republicans to bully the majority too often over the past three years.

As a result, while more liberal Members such as Whitehouse, Brown and Sanders have taken the lead in publicly vocalizing their frustrations, other Democrats such as Virginia’s Jim Webb and Mark Warner and even New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen have expressed their anger with Republican successes during internal debates.

The efforts of junior Democrats to re-energize their Conference has also been helpful to House Democratic leaders.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) made a surprise appearance on the Senate floor during last week’s late-night debate over freeing the unemployment benefits bill. Senate Democratic aides said Hoyer and other House leaders have for months pushed their Senate colleagues to pursue more open fights with Republicans, arguing that a show of force was necessary to calm the nerves of House Democrats. Hoyer has “really been pushing us ... so he can go back to [his] Members and say we’re on the same team,” a Senate Democratic aide acknowledged.

Hoyer on Wednesday hailed the defeat of Bunning’s filibuster and Durbin’s role in that fight. “I want to thank my colleague Dick Durbin for leading the effort,” Hoyer said, adding that by forcing Republicans’ hand, it “makes it so that the American people understand” what is happening in the chamber.