I warned people not to play poker with Harry Reid. Why wouldn't Fristie listen?
This afternoon the Senate Democrats, under the leadership of Harry Reid and Richard Durbin (with an assist from the most underrated member of the Senate, Carl Levin) seized control of the chamber and forced the Republicans to do some work. As Kagro X pointed out long ago, Harry Reid hasn't threatened to shut down the Senate if the Republicans launch the Nuclear Option, he's threatened to use extraordinary measures to make the Senate work on issues of the Democrats' choosing. It's worth taking a look at the immediate issue at hand in today's dust up, the issue on which the Senate Dems forced the Republicans to work. But we should also recognize that today's Senate actions took place amid a cluster of potentially monumental events, including the Libby indictment, the Alito nomination and the filibuster and launch of the Nuclear Option it may provoke, planning for dealing with a possible Avian Flu pandemic, recruitment and early positioning for next year's Congressional elections, and the ongoing battle between the parties to gain control of news cycles, with the Democrats increasingly taking the offensive. The Democrats' maneuver in the Senate was a brilliant tactical move, and I suspect an important strategic move that will help shape the political environment for the next 12 months.
As DemFromCT reminded us this morning, "a failed President doesn't get to set the agenda the way he likes." If he did, we wouldn't have had days and weeks of anticipation of Fitzmas, followed by a weekend of intense dicussion about the Libby indictment. 10 days ago, when the Bush "family" convened at Camp David, they were surely devising a plan, to use the terminology Andy Card brought with him from the auto industry, to "roll out" new initiatives and major announcements right after the indictments in the hope of regaining control of the media in furtherance of their agenda.
Maybe they didn't know 10 days ago that Miers would withdraw her nomination. But if the White House was trying to bury the indictments, bracketing it with Supreme Court announcements was a game attempt, which also had the virtue of getting the Miers withdrawal (caused by extremists in the President's own political base) out of the news damn fast. Then, on Tuesday, the plan probably reads, scare people with talk of Avian Flu (months later than the administration should have done something). It's probably in the White House's message calendar and talking points to try to use Avian Flu as a scary distraction (and like terrorism, one it won't do much to effectively address).
So far, for the White House, so good. But then the Senate Democrats screwed up their plans, and in the process, did something good for the country:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats accusing the ruling Republicans of stalling tactics imposed a rare closed session of the Senate on Tuesday to force the majority to complete a probe on whether the Bush administration misused intelligence before the Iraq War.
Republicans, angered that the maneuver was sprung on them without warning, dismissed it as a stunt but agreed to form a bipartisan task force to report by November 14 on how the Intelligence Committee was progressing with its investigation.
Senate Republican leaders were livid about the tactic, which drew public attention back to Iraq as President George W. Bush faced the fall-out from an indictment of a senior aide related to the handling of pre-war intelligence.
"The United States Senate has been hijacked by the Democratic leadership," Majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said. "Never have I been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution."
But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said what he called Republican stalling on the issue had been "a slap in the face for the American people."
It was a brilliant tactical move by the Democrats, with Reid getting in that extra jab by parrying Frist's narcissistic comment about a personal slap in the face with the comment about the Republicans delivering the real slap to the face of the American people. For tonight and tomorrow, Alito got pushed aside, Avian Flu wasn't the only big story, and the Dems took control of the news cycle.
But beyond the tactical level, this was an important strategic move. First, it will profoundly affect the bases of each party. If you don't think Democratic partisans are giddy over winning a political streetfight, just go over to Daily Kos and poke around the diaries and especially the comment threads; people are euphoric. And it will probably have a bit of a negative effect on the Republican partisan base. Look for plenty of kvetching about how Harry Reid is schooling hapless Bill Frist, and how the Senate Republicans can't control the chamber. One day after the Alito nomination, which is interpreted as Bush's caputulation to his conservative base, that can't be overlooked. After all, the Republicans will only want a fight if they think they can win, and fewer and fewer Republicans will believe Frist can ever lead them to a procedural victory. (I distinguish here between Republicans and conservatives; for many movement conservatives, winning isn't as important as keeping open the donation spigot, which is easier to do when there's a threat than when you actually succeed in delivering the goods.)
It's also important because it gives the momentum in the Senate to the Democrats. Sure, the Republicans have 55 seats, but they also have a weakened leader under serious investigation for insider trading, and about 10 caucus members either terrified of losing next November (Chaffee, Santorum) or angling for the 2008 GOP Presidential nomination. By contrast, Reid and Durbin only have Ben Nelson facing a serious threat in 2006, and the Presidential aspirants gain nothing by breaking ranks with the caucus as long as the caucus is sticking it to the Republicans as effectively as they did today. That makes future threats more credible.
Which leads to the Nuclear Option. Iraqgate and White House scandal is an easy subject on which to keep the Dems unified (as long as somebody is sitting on top of Joementum and keeping him away from microphones). [BTW, anyone notice Joementum has been remarkably silent for the last few months? Reid must have scared the hell out of him to keep him from mouthing off.] But the nuclear option may be a little more difficult. I could see Ben Nelson easily deserting the Dems, and it's harder to argue with him since he comes from one of the most Republican states in the country. And there are several Dems who could conceivably vote to confirm Alito, especially from the ranks of the Gang of Fourteen. But at this point, I find it easier to believe that Reid can hold his caucus together than that Frist can hold his. This is especially true with a greater likelihood that the Republicans could find themselves in a minority in 2007, and may wonder about the wisdom of getting rid of the filibuster just as they may need it. Furthermore, the Democratic threat to force uncomfortable votes and force work on issues the Republicans would rather ignore or suppress makes the cost of launching the Nuclear Option more tangible and believable today than it was yesterday.
Mark Schmitt thinks that today was a power shift, where a minority seizes control of the agenda from the majority. I think he's probably right. The Senate Democrats have shown they're not afraid to play hardball and that they can maintain unity. Expect Reid, Durbin and the Senate Democrats to maintain pressure on the Republicans to exploit the conflict between the White House's desire for secrecy and the Congressional Republican's impulse toward self-preservation.