The key thing about the Shelby/hold story is that it provides the Democrats a second chance to revisit the vote blocking issue with the public. What recent polls have shown is that very few people actually have any idea how the senate rules work. So while political junkies on both sides of the aisle know that President Obama has been hung up on numerous pieces of legislation this year because Republicans are forcing a de facto 60 vote rule, very little of that has gotten through to the broader public. It’s just: Dems tried; Dems failed; nothing happened. Back when we went through this drama in 2005 with the shoe on the other foot, the Republican message machine was very clear and persistent on “allowing an up or down vote.” Simple, clear, a strong small-d democratic argument, and one that makes the out party work for the 60 vote standard as opposed to taking it as a given.
On the contrary, this issue never really became an issue all year in Democratic messaging. It was discussed at the level of obscure parliamentary terminology — cloture, filibuster, etc. That’s very different from ‘they should at least let the senate vote on it’; but not a lot of people in the Democratic establishment in Washington seemed to get that. With a lot of anger and bluster it was just sort of taken as granted that the Republicans had set the goalpost at sixty. And all the action was on corralling the conservative Dems and trying to get one or two Republicans over the line.
Now, I’m not saying Health Care Reform would have sailed through if the messaging had been different. I’m not saying Republicans would have buckled. I am sure, however, that the public reaction and consequences for the GOP would have been different. Maybe not vastly different, but significantly different. (Note as an example that it really hasn’t occurred to the Democrats to hit the airwaves with the fact that Senate Republicans now won’t even allow a vote on the Jobs Bill.)
The Shelby blanket hold isn’t unprecedented, though it’s close. But doing this to shake the administration down for a couple of earmarks is pretty unheard of. And given the current electrical charge about ‘earmarks’ and ‘pork’ it gives the White House a golden opportunity not just to embarrass the Republicans over Shelby’s obstructionism over an earmark, it gives them a second chance to engage the public on Republican refusal to even allow votes — regardless of what one thinks of the substance — on critical national issues. Not allowing votes here leads to a discussion or not allowing votes on the Jobs Bill. The headline writes itself: Republicans shut down senate so Shelby can get his earmarks. (Remember, he can’t do this himself. He needs to be supported by his caucus.) The GOP leadership sees that it’s toxic.
Alas, it seems the White House has already decided it doesn’t want to take up the opportunity. Which is probably a good preview of 2010.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.