November 25, 2003

Democrats Take a Dive

E.J. Dionne, Washington Post: "What Democrats failed to understand, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said in an interview yesterday morning, is that Republicans "are on an ideological march. They have no intention of playing fair..."

The Democrats Take a Dive

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, November 25, 2003; Page A29

The battle over a Medicare prescription drug benefit proves that Republicans are ruthless and determined and that Democrats are divided and hapless.
Republicans have changed the rules in Washington, but
some Democrats still pretend to be living in the good
old days.

And so there was much bitterness among Democrats as
the Republicans' Medicare drug bulldozer rolled
inexorably forward with critical help from two
Democratic senators. A majority of Democrats believe
the bill was a bad deal -- it gave President Bush a
political victory without demanding enough in return.
"It's a combination of political stupidity and
substantive gutlessness," said one influential
Democratic congressional aide.

What Democrats failed to understand, Sen. Hillary
Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said in an interview yesterday
morning, is that Republicans "are on an ideological
march. They have no intention of playing fair. They
want what they want when they want it." And they get

If anyone doubted the rules had changed, House
Republican leaders ended all illusions in the early
hours of Saturday morning by holding open a 15-minute
roll call vote for an unprecedented two hours and 51
minutes. At the end of the normal time for voting,
Republican leaders faced defeat on the drug bill by a
two-vote margin. Eventually, two Republicans were
hammered into switching their votes.

"I don't mean to be alarmist, but this is the end of
parliamentary democracy as we have known it," said
Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. The new system
amounted to "plebiscitary democracy" in which leaders
of the House have imposed such a strong sense of party
discipline that they will ultimately pass whatever
legislation they bring to the floor. "The Republican
Party in the House is the most ideologically cohesive
and disciplined party in the democratic world," Frank
said. In response, House Democrats were more united in
opposition to the bill than Democratic senators, who
are operating as if the older system of give-and-take
were still in force.

Edward M. Kennedy was one senator who believed the old
system could still work. He had urged his colleagues
to pass an earlier version of the drug bill on the
assumption that Republicans would agree to a
compromise acceptable to Democrats.

Instead, House and Senate negotiators pushed the
Senate bill to the right by adding in Medicare
privatization experiments, big HMO subsidies and
medical savings accounts. These and other changes
pushed Kennedy to lead the last-ditch fight against
the final version of the bill.

While Clinton and Frank admire Kennedy, both think he
"made a mistake," as Frank put it, in thinking a real
compromise would emerge from the current system. "I
think we started down this slope in June," Clinton
said, referring to the vote on the earlier bill, which
she opposed and Kennedy favored. Clinton had predicted
that the already inadequate drug benefit in that bill
would be weakened by Republicans in subsequent

Kennedy said in an interview that he had no regrets
about trying to get the earlier bill passed. But he
acknowledged that Republicans had shown far more
discipline than Democrats have ever mustered. Kennedy
recalled a conversation he had with then-Sen. Phil
Gramm of Texas in the early 1990s about the wall of
Republican opposition to President Clinton's health
care bill. Gramm, he said, explained that Republicans
were determined not to let Clinton and a Democratic
Congress prove they were capable of "performing."

Bush is dealing with a more pliable opposition.
Whatever discontent liberals expressed toward Kennedy
was mild compared with their irritation toward Sens.
John Breaux of Louisiana and Max Baucus of Montana.

Breaux and Baucus were the only two Democrats allowed
to negotiate the Medicare bill with the Republicans,
House Democrats having been totally excluded. Would
Republicans have put up with such an arrangement?

Over the weekend, several Democrats complained that
Breaux and Baucus promised to report back to their
colleagues before reaching a deal. Instead, they
announced their support for the Republican bill,
setting in motion its rush to passage. And Baucus
poured salt into his party's wounds when he opened his
speech in defense of the bill on Sunday by taking
issue with how House Democratic leaders had described
his legislation. Bush must have been laughing as
Baucus drove a wedge through the Democratic Party.

If Democrats wanted to give Bush a political victory,
they could have insisted on a much better deal.
Instead, their negotiators sold out for a bill full of
subsidies to the HMOs that will make it harder to
control drug costs. The moral, yet again, is that
Republicans are much tougher than Democrats and fight
much harder to win.

Posted by richard at November 25, 2003 09:02 AM