There's more to Elizabeth Warren's rejection of Obama nominee Antonio Weiss than meets the eye. Could this be the start of a progressive Senate insurgency?
An 'Open Rebellion Caucus' Forms In The Senate
November 29, 2014

A version of this piece first appeared at digby's Hullabaloo. GP article archive here

I've been a fan of an "Open Rebellion Caucus" among progressive office-holders and insiders — the principled and conscience-led — for a long time. For example, in a pre-election piece titled Are Democratic Leaders Already "Tea Partying" The Progressives? I noted at the end:

"Open Rebellion Caucus" ... a group that says No and openly defies corporate Democratic leadership. I believe I've seen one forming in the House already. Next time I'll give an example of a golden opportunity to form an Open Rebellion Caucus in the Senate, an opportunity that was not taken. Stay tuned.

I'll come back to the situation in the House another time. That Senate "golden opportunity," which was lost, occurred in January 2013 when progressive Senators proposed strong filibuster reform — and voted for weak reform — because that's what the "bipartisan moderates" wanted. (Note: It's not the progressive loss that I'm calling out; it's the way pro-reform progressives voted.)

Why does Open Rebellion matter?

Why rebellion — progressive insurgency — against billionaire-controlled Democrats matters could become an essay in itself, and someday it will. But simply put, it matters for two main reasons. One, because conscience matters — yes, that — and two, because there are already cracks in all three layers of the progressive movement buried within the Democratic Party:

▪ Democratic voters have arguably rejected neoliberal, corporate, billionaire-serving Democrats in 2014. The country is ready for change, and the day Democrats offer one, they'll win elections by the bucketful.

▪ Democratic activists and writers are desperate for something better from their party. Their cris de coeur are private for now, said amongst themselves, and those cries are not cried by all. Nevertheless, a great many progressive voices and hands are done, have had it, with the Mark Warners and Pryors of the world, and very vocally so.

▪ Some Democratic insiders are similarly ready to rebel. There are pockets of donors, strategists and office-holders who "get it" — get that they can't be principled (that word again) and support the Geithners, the Pritzkers, and the Orszags. And if they can't support the Geithners, how can they support a White House that regularly coughs them out for consideration?

Cracks within all three groups are visible if you're looking for them. I spent a week in Washington recently, selectively and explicitly looking for them. The intra-party war within the first two groups isn't fully formed, yet, but it could be; the rumbles are loud enough. But among voters, the results appear to be in. When progressive policies are wildly popular as ballot measures, and corporate Democrats are rejected as "no solution at all," the crack in the base is wide as a canyon and deep as a fracking well.

Now that widening crack is spreading to office-holders.

The "Hell No" caucus targets billionaire-serving Democratic leaders

Our first look at office-holders who refuse to play "follow the neoliberal leader" starts in the Senate. POLITICO noted the formation of a "Hell No" caucus led by people like Sen. Jeff Merkley, but carefully couched it as an anti-Republican group (my emphasis everywhere):

Liberal ‘hell no’ caucus rises

The defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline in the Senate marked a major show of muscle for next year’s new hell-no caucus: liberals. ... [R]ed-state Democrats like Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska are on their way out, and liberals like Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders and Sheldon Whitehouse — with Elizabeth Warren leading the way on messaging — may cause as many headaches for Senate Republicans as tea partyers caused Democrats in the past four years. ...

Here's that "Hell No" caucus in action, but with a different target. Elizabeth Warren, writing recently at Huffington Post, has this to say about Antonio Weiss, an Obama nominee for a senior post at the Treasury Department. Warren's objection to Weiss has been covered before, but I want to offer an additional take. As you read, tell me who she's taking on, Republicans or her own billionaire-led party leaders:

Enough Is Enough: The President's Latest Wall Street Nominee

I believe President Obama deserves deference in picking his team, and I've generally tried to give him that. But enough is enough.

Last Wednesday, President Obama announced his nomination of Antonio Weiss to serve as Under Secretary for Domestic Finance at the Treasury Department. This is a position that oversees Dodd-Frank implementation and a wide range of banking and economic policymaking issues, including consumer protection.

So who is Antonio Weiss? He's the head of global investment banking for the financial giant Lazard. He has spent the last 20 years of his career at Lazard -- most of it advising on international mergers and acquisitions. ...

There's so much more in Warren's piece, and I'll come back to some of it. But she's taking on the (yes, neoliberal) president of her party, two weeks after an election in which her party lost the majority in her house of Congress to the hated Republicans, and one week after the Republicans said they would up their game against that very president. Has Warren joined the nominal enemy (Republicans), or has she taken the fight to the real enemy that controls both parties — the "billionaire class"?

Warren's indictment of Obama's appointment reads like this:

The second issue [with the Weiss nomination] is corporate inversions. Basically, a bunch of companies have decided that all the regular tax loopholes they get to exploit aren't enough, so they have begun taking advantage of an even bigger loophole that allows them to maintain their operations in America but claim foreign citizenship and cut their U.S. taxes even more. No one is fooled by the bland words "corporate inversion." These companies renounce their American citizenship and turn their backs on this country simply to boost their profits.

One of the biggest and most public corporate inversions last summer was the deal cut by Burger King to slash its tax bill by purchasing the Canadian company Tim Hortons and then "inverting" the American company to Canadian ownership. And Weiss was right there, working on Burger King's tax deal. Weiss' work wasn't unusual for Lazard. That firm has helped put together three of the last four major corporate inversions that have been announced in the U.S. And like those old Hair Club commercials used to say, Lazard isn't just the President of the Corporate Loopholes Club -- it's also a client. Lazard moved its own headquarters from the United States to Bermuda in 2005 to take advantage of a particularly slimy tax loophole that was closed shortly afterwards. Even the Treasury Department under the Bush administration found Lazard's practices objectionable.

The White House and Treasury have strongly denounced inversions, and rightly so. But they undercut their own position by advancing Mr. Weiss.

Notice the word "exploit" above. Warren, here and elsewhere, correctly sees the "billionaire class" as predators, and she's willing to call out the leaders of her party when those leaders advance predator interests.

[T]here's the larger, more general issue of Wall Street executives dominating the Obama administration, as well as the Democratic Party's, overall economic policymaking apparatus. I wrote about this problem a couple of months ago on The Huffington Post in more detail.

Here is what I wrote then:

Just look at the influence of one mega-bank -- Citigroup -- on our government. Starting with former Citigroup CEO Robert Rubin, three of the last four Treasury secretaries under Democratic presidents held high-paying jobs at Citigroup either before or after serving at Treasury -- and the fourth was offered, but declined, Citigroup's CEO position. Directors of the National Economic Council and Office of Management and Budget, the current Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve and the U.S. trade representative, also pulled in millions from Citigroup. ...

Shortly before the [Eric] Cantor episode, another former member of Congress -- Democrat Melissa Bean -- took the same senior job at JPMorgan Chase previously held by Democrat Bill Daley before his recent service as White House Chief of Staff. Yes -- this is just a single position at JPMorgan Chase, evidently reserved for the latest politician ready to cash in on Wall Street. ...

In recent years, President Obama has repeatedly turned to nominees with close Wall Street ties for high-level economic positions. Jack Lew, who was a top Citigroup official, now serves as Treasury Secretary. The President's choice for Treasury's highest international position, Nathan Sheets, also comes from Citi. For the number two spot at the Federal Reserve, the President tapped Stanley Fischer, another former Citigroup executive. A Bank of America executive, Stefan Selig, was put in charge of international trade at the Commerce Department. The President's two recent picks for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission -- including his choice for Chairman -- are lawyers who have spent their careers representing big financial institutions.

Please do read the whole thing. The phrase "piling on" was invented for exercises like these. Notice that she makes "the President" personally responsible. She closes where she began, by referencing her only other No vote on an Obama nominee and implying strongly that Weiss will be treated the same:

Enough is enough.

Indeed. This is a fight to watch.

Will the "Hell No" caucus declare Open Rebellion against Weiss? Three things to watch.

Back in the POLITICO article, progressive Senators Merkley, Sanders and frequently-progressive Sen. Whitehouse were named as part of their fancifully named "Hell No" caucus — meaning "hell no" to Keystone and Republicans. But Keystone is a billionaire-led Democratic favorite as well, one which senators like "No-to-Reid" Claire McCaskill supports. Without really saying so, POLITICO has found the crack in the Democratic Senate. Will an Open Rebellion Caucus (my own fanciful naming) work to widen that crack?

I earnestly hope so. If you're in my camp, or just interested in watching this battle, here are three things to notice:

1. Watch what happens to the Weiss nomination. Especially, watch the vote. Weiss is Money-to-the-core — the billionaire's next nominee for Treasury — so he'll get Republican Yes votes. But he's Obama's nominee, so he'll draw Republican No's as well.

If the nomination fails, every Democratic No has joined with Warren and could become an Open Rebellion candidate going forward. Voting No in a winning cause will take real courage — "I decline to follow the leader" courage — and every man and woman who does so deserves your praise and support. The crack in the Democratic caucus will widen and the insurgency will grow.

But if the nomination succeeds, Democratic No votes could be real or just for show ("It's safe to vote No, 'cause he's gonna pass anyway"). Any No vote in a losing cause could be suspect, because there's no way to tell who's sincere and who's been given "permission" to vote against the rest of the caucus "for the folks back home."

2. Watch what Harry Reid does. In my travels I heard a number of mixed reports about Harry Reid. Those opposed to or concerned about his past Senate leadership consider him unreliable — good on issues like TPP, but too willing to compromise elsewhere in order to "keep the caucus together." But I also spoke with several close observers who say that Reid-in-opposition — a Reid who no longer has to hold his majority together with anti-progressive decisions — may prove a strong progressive ally.

Which Reid is the real one? Only the deep insiders know for sure. But if better-Reid is on the horizon, now is the time to show it — with deeds that can be seen and understood from outside the Beltway. Watch carefully. The Weiss nomination, if it moves through the lame duck Senate to conclusion, could make an interesting test of which Reid we'll have in the next two years — progressive-ally Reid, or party-first Reid.

I'm eager to see which Reid raises his head. A true progressive insurgency in the Senate, if it solidifies, will have to go forward through Reid or with Reid. Going through Reid is obviously the harder course. Going with Reid, in my opinion, will benefit both Reid and Democrats. Saying No to billionaires is the path back to the majority as I see it, and I believe the 2014 losses confirm that observation.

3. Watch the nomination of Loretta Lynch for Attorney General. If Elizabeth Warren thought Antonio Weiss was bad, consider Loretta Lynch. Yes, she'd be the first African-American woman Attorney General. She's also deep in the Eric Holder mold — no Wall Street crime is too criminal to prosecute. She's a "white shoes" lawyer who signed off on the white-washed HSBC settlement:

According to a Matt Taibbi blockbuster in Rolling Stone, HSBC, indirectly and directly, laundered hundreds of millions of dollars for entities that included Mexican drug cartels, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Russian gangs, Iran, and North Korea.

"Money laundering" means "being a banker" for people who cut people's heads off (click; it's the Mexican cartels I'm talking about). I mentioned "conscience" above; this settlement is conscienceless. As the article notes, it was "an exclusively financial settlement without criminal prosecution." About Lynch as AG, I've already noted lawyer Mike Papantonio's comment from the video below:

She's going to make the lives of Wall Street criminals a cake walk, not a perp walk.

Cake walk, not a perp walk. That's your next Attorney General unless our nascent, Warren-inspired "Open Rebellion Caucus" is willing to partner with other Democrats and Republicans to stop it. I will take courage for Democrats to do this — one of today's themes. Not only will they be partnering with the hated Republicans, they'll go against many prominent liberal cheerleaders. What will they do, act on the principle already demonstrated by Ms. Warren in the Weiss case, or ... fold?

Courage and conscience — who has it and who doesn't?

We live in times that test us. Sad that, but it can't be helped. I would not want to be a Clinton — a triangulating billionaire-serving Democrat — as the day's issues grow more stark and the bright lines more clear. And I'm not sure I'd want to be a party-loyal, on-the-fence progressive either. Yet that way victory lies, the way of courage.

Just look who won and who lost in the last set of fights. Marriage equality won — because gays went toe-to-toe with Obama and defied their own "triangulating" organizations, like Human Rights Campaign. Immigration reform is winning — because immigration activists pushed La Raza to call Obama the "deporter-in-chief" and he didn't like it.

Courage and conscience. Do progressive Senators have what it takes? Does Harry Reid have what it takes to support them? I can't wait to find out. Here's that Papantonio–Loretta Lynch video. It's short; enjoy!

By the way, Thom Hartmann's The Big Picture makes a great pre-MSNBC watch. Check it out when it returns to Free Speech TV. Just a thought.



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