However one feels about the merits of an automaker bail-out, it’s important to recognize the political opportunity cost of pushing one through. Legislators spent two weeks of a special session trying to make this happen — using time, energy, and political capital which might have been spent on something else. Still worse, they failed, which means that another battle will ensue in January, taking up time, energy, and political capital that might be used to push forward other key priorities of the new president and Congress.
And it will be a battle, despite the new majorities. Brian Beutler explains:
Now assume that everyone who wasn’t there this time (except Biden) shows up next time. Kennedy, Kerry, and Wyden will probably vote yes. But Alexander, Cornyn, and Graham will probably vote no. That’s 39. With a vote this close, the parties’ whip operations will be in full swing. Can Republican leadership get two more votes? Hard to say, of course. Snowe, Collins, and Specter are probably pretty safe. Maybe Lugar, too. But is Bond? Can the Democrats count on Begich? Or will he follow his Democratic colleagues from Montana and vote no?
It’s hard to know for sure, but this is all a very, very long way of saying that votes on major legislation will still be very, very tough. I personally have mixed feelings about bailing out Detroit, but it’d be a mistake for Democrats and liberals who fully support it to proceed under the illusion that, with a 58 or 59 member caucus, Reid can build whatever bill he wants and assume the votes will be there.
So, what do you want? Do you want a large, quality stimulus? Do you want an energy and climate change policy? Health care? Every trip into the upper house is going to require a concerted effort to twist arms and call in chits until something can be achieved. How much of the new leadership’s scarce political resources are we willing to spend on firms that deserve to be in bankruptcy, that will have to cut tens of thousands of jobs even under the best case scenario with a generous bail-out, and that have spent years and billions of dollars fighting progressive policy priorities?
Meanwhile, we should all remember that the Senate is a dangerously undemocratic place. The combination of highly unequal representation and supermajority rules means that tiny minorities can wield veto power over policies enjoying extraordinary popular consensus. This gives the ruling party every incentive to focus as much power as possible in the executive, which is likely to make Senate minorities dig in their heels still further. Now may not be the time, but it’s a state of affairs that needs some serious attention.