A version of this piece first appeared at digby's Hullabaloo. GP article archive here.
I've written about the possibility of an "Open Rebellion Caucus" (my playful name) forming in the Senate — a group of progressive senators strong enough and willing enough to openly defy their corporate-friendly Clintonian leaders.
Clintonian leaders frequently espouse anti-progressive policies, like cutting benefits to Social Security and punishing the poor by "ending welfare," for example. Those "leaders" include both President Obama and former President Clinton, high-ranking members of their administrations, and most Democrats in Congress, including those in leadership positions — Steny Hoyer in the House (next in line for Pelosi's position) or Chuck Schumer in the Senate (next in line for Reid's), to name just two.
For years, real progressives have been frustrated by these men and women. They've also been shamed, bullied, blackmailed, and in some cases bought off by their "leaders." Their losses, their fear, their attempts to advance more human policies have become just "part of the game," and we've been watching the results since Al From, Bill Clinton and the DLC.
It's been a good game for bipartisan government "by the money" — they've scored win after win — but a terrible game for the rest of us. And mainly, the game's been stable.
A United Party Is a Complicit Party
How have progressive office-holders (most but not all) been complicit in government "by the money"? In two ways. First, many progressives have given their votes (reluctantly perhaps) to policies that benefit mainly the rich — Wall Street bailouts, gutting of the regulatory structure of the state, support for Monsanto when no one was looking, and so on.
And second, they've given ground cover (unknowingly perhaps) to the Democratic ("evil, but less so") Party as a whole. How? Because the pro-corporate Democratic party can always point to its (often hated) progressive wing and say, "See, we're the party with a conscience. Our evil really is lesser. Listen to the speeches of these fine progressives — you know, the ones we ignore."
And progressives, in the name of party unity, have mostly held their tongues when it counted (for example, during the 2013 filibuster "debate" when they hid the names of their own anti-reform elders), mostly soldiered on, content to pick away at the edges of corporate rule, to win a few crumbs from the floor at the corporate feast. And they've traded away their principles, often, for those wins. Which makes them complicit in the first way I mentioned.
Open Rebellion Means Breaking the Chains of Complicity
But now there's a birth, a start, of a new group of progressive office-holder, a group that won't be party-loyal when the party sides against the people, that won't hold its party-loyal tongue, that will openly criticize and fight the other enemy of pro-citizen government — corporate Democrats.
The calculus is simple — progressives are mostly losing anyway, and they're also losing their "souls," or at least obscuring their anti-corporate "brand," with critical pro-corporate votes. By voting in party unity with corporate-friendly "leaders," they're giving voters a reason to look elsewhere than the Democratic party. If progressives are going to lose anyway, they might as well lose fighting the real enemy, the bipartisan corporate state, and be seen doing it. At least they'll give the people someone to rally around. There's no question that the people are looking for someone to rally around.
It's a tough road to go down, though, fighting one's own party leaders. What to choose? Party unity when the party demands it (and the perqs that go with that compliance), or progressive principles and life as an outcast if you hold to them? Choosing the latter takes extraordinary courage (remember Dennis Kucinich's plane ride?). Thus there are three groups of Democrats in office today:
- Money-bought and corporate-friendly. Bad to the core on most money issues; frequently deeply corrupt as well. The many.
- Progressives willing to say publicly to their leaders, "Enough is enough." The insurgents. The very few.
- "Progressives" who triangulate between their principles and their loyalty to party (or their fear, their calculation, or their own careers). The in-betweens, the torn, or those who appear to be torn.
This is about those three groups. They're starting to sort themselves. They're starting to self-identify. And one group may be starting to grow.
What Did the Continuing Resolution Show Us?
As I've often written, when it comes to votes in the House or Senate, you can only trust the sincerity of people who vote with the winner when the outcome is uncertain. In situations where the outcome is not in doubt, votes for either side may be sincere, or they may be just "for show," for "the district," or a form of what Howie Klein below calls preening.
We got a perfect example of that in the Senate recently on the so-called "CRomnibus" bill — the continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government, which also contains the "omnibus" appropriations for all of its agencies. (That bill passed in both the House and Senate, by the way, so the government is funded through the end of its fiscal year, October 1, 2015.)
There were many many reasons to vote against this abomination (there are at least ten at the link), but Elizabeth Warren and others made several impassioned pleas to kill it over a "Citibank rider" that would have put taxpayers back on the hook for derivatives-gambling losses. Warren was especially strong and caustic, as in this floor speech:
In the Senate and in the caucus, it was Warren who led the charge, who forcefully urged rejection of the "CRomnibus" bill. Since Steny Hoyer and almost everyone in House leadership except Nancy Pelosi supported the bill, and since both Barack Obama and Joe Biden whipped for its passage, she put herself squarely in the insurgency, in open and public rebellion against her leaders.
As it played out in the Senate, those three groups revealed themselves, partly in caucus meetings and partly in their votes. Let's consider just the votes here, and leave the caucus discussion for another time. There were two votes on the bill, two chances to kill it. One group tried to kill the bill every chance they got. One group supported the bill every chance they got. And one group voted against the bill only after it was sure to pass.
As usual, three groups of Democrats. And because Warren created such a sharp bright line with her charismatic, principled intra-party challenge, the self-sorting into those groups was both revealing and perhaps a harbinger. Let's look at the names.
Where Was the Merkley Crowd During the Cloture Vote?
The Continuing Resolution/Omnibus Spending bill came for a vote in the Senate on Saturday, December 14. First it had to survive a cloture vote to bring it to the floor, then a floor vote on the bill itself. From a valuable Howie Klein analysis (my emphasis and paragraphing):
First there was a cloture bill. The Democrats who were really serious about blocking Schumer's Wall Street bailout voted against cloture. They were ready to filibuster for real. There were only 5 plus Bernie [Sanders]: Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Al Franken, Joe Manchin, Claire McCaskill. And, of course a bunch of crackpot Republicans who actually want to shut down the government. The total there was 77-19.
What happened to Jeff Merkely, Tammy Baldwin, Brian Schatz, Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed [on the cloture vote]?
Then there was the vote on the bill itself. Klein again:
Once the filibuster was broken and it was impossible to really stop the thing from passing, senators could posture and preen on the final bill-- and they did. Corporate whores like Bob Menendez (NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Cory Booker (NJ), Maria Cantwell (WA), Ed Markey (MA) and Carl Levin (MI) scurried across the aisle to safely pose as liberals. Tom Harkin (IA), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Barbara Boxer (CA) too. It passed 56-40.
Let's break out these lists. In bold are the Democratic No votes on cloture, votes to kill the bill by keeping it off the floor:
Senators Who Voted to Kill the Bill at Cloture
These are the people who tried to kill the bill at the first opportunity. Everyone who voted Yes on the cloture vote helped it pass. Once the cloture vote failed, 77-19, everyone in the Senate knew there were plenty of votes to pass it. Time for some posturing.
Here are the Democratic No votes on the bill itself. Bolded names also voted against cloture. Underscored names are those who let it pass during cloture, then voted against it when the lights were on. Remember, this is the vote that gets reported in the papers and on TV.
Senators Who Voted to Kill the Bill After Cloture Failed
In other words, the following Democrats helped the bill pass during cloture, then sided against it, knowing they would lose (but look good doing it). These are just the underscored Democrats from the list above. Note that most have a well-cultivated "liberal" or "progressive" reputation.
Democrats Who Pretended to Try to Kill the Bill
I'm calling these people, or most of them, the "Merkley crowd" because they frequently take progressive stands behind Merkley's leadership — on filibuster reform, for example, which I mentioned above. I'm also calling them the "in-between" crowd, at least on this vote, for reasons I just explained. Howie Klein has more about this group of senators here, including some striking and specific information about where some of them get their funding.
If you feel like making a phone call, you don't need anyone's permission. Just use the list above, check Klein's list of funding sources to see if your callee is mentioned (not all are), and then ask the senator this:
"Why did you vote for cloture if you opposed the bill?"
For example, Jeff Merkley issued this statement opposing the bill after it passed (my emphasis):
WASHINGTON -- Oregon's Senator Jeff Merkley released the following statement after the Senate voted on passage of the 2015 spending bill.
“Tonight the Senate voted on final passage of the 2015 spending bill. While there are many positive aspects of the bill, I voted ‘no’ [but not on cloture] because of my deep opposition to a provision that puts the Wall Street Casino back in business.
“This provision allows big Wall Street banks to get back in the business of making risky and exotic bets with government backing. These bets have no place inside a bank, putting our financial system at risk. And they certainly don’t merit government backing.
“Just six years ago, these types of bets melted down our entire economy with great losses in jobs and savings for middle-class Americans. We must not allow this to happen again. We can and must do better.”
A principled statement. But given that he didn't vote No on cloture, what does it mean? That he wanted to indicate he was opposed while taking the deal anyway as the best they were going to get? A plausible explanation perhaps, but he could have just said that. I struggle to understand.
Again, Jeff Merkley's DC office number is (202) 224-3753, and his Portland office number is (503) 326-3386. He may have an excellent explanation, but if so, we deserve to hear it, especially in light of the statement above.
Democrats Who Voted With Wall Street All the Way
There were plenty of Democrats in the corporate group — who were a Wall Street Yes all the way. Granted there were other reasons to vote Yes on both cloture and the bill — including and maybe especially, reasoned surrender to blackmail, or a (complicit) "this is the best deal we could get."
Still, a double Yes was a Wall Street Yes, for whatever reason. You can get the full list here of double-yes Democrats, but the names that jump out at me are —
Michael Bennet (who "curated" the 2014 electoral losses)
Dick Durbin (often an Obama surrogate)
"Independent" Angus King
Patty Murray (!)
Brian Schatz (!)
Jean Shaheen (!)
Mark Udall (who lost)
Tom Udall (who won)
Mark Warner (who very nearly lost, but Schumer loves him anyway)
Care to ask about their votes? Full Senate phone numbers here.
There are several on this list I'd personally add to an "Addition by Subtraction" file immediately, people whose presence should never be missed by any real progressive. For example, I could lose Michael Bennet and Mark Warner in a Wall Street Minute. If their presence cost Democrats the Senate, I'd be glad for their absence. (I could lose Schumer as well, but maybe that's just me.)
What About McCaskill and Manchin?
Finally, an apparent anomaly. Claire McCaskill and Joe Manchin, two "centrists" (corporatists), voted with Warren to defeat the cloture motion. How do we account for that? One way is this. If the rule is ...
In situations where the outcome is not in doubt, votes for either side may be sincere, or they may be just "for show."
... maybe they're in that "for show" group. It's possible they're opposed to Wall Street, though both are generally allied with Chuck Schumer, who's widely rumored to have worked to keep the Citibank rider in the bill. But McCaskill and Manchin are also reportedly enemies of Harry Reid, Schumer's frequent opponent in Senate leadership.
So this could just be "for show" on their part. If so, what are they showing? Perhaps a big middle finger to Reid, knowing cloture would fail and the bill would pass without them. According to The Hill (my paragraphing):
Manchin and McCaskill wage protest against Reid’s leadership style
Two centrists, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), voted against Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) Thursday to protest his leadership style.
McCaskill said that, under Reid’s tenure as Senate majority leader, the chamber has become engulfed in partisan sniping and produced little in the way of legislative progress. The Missouri Democrat said she’s focused on “making this place functional again and working with our Republican colleagues.” ...
She voted no on a yes-or-no secret ballot question on whether Reid should serve as minority leader in the 114th Congress. She did not have an opportunity to vote for another leader.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) sounded exasperated after emerging from a four-hour meeting, during which Democrats voted to keep their leadership team largely in place. “I voted for a change,” Manchin told reporters. “I didn’t get a change.” ...
And this is how the game is played, as I analyze it.
Where Do Our Three Groups Stand Now?
Thus our three groups, at the dawn of the late-Obama era, the post-2014 world. In the first group — the corporatists — money-bought Democrats lost ground to the corporate, money-bought Republicans. On the Democratic side, this group is smaller in number, but still in control of the caucus. Their number is legion relative to the other two groups.
In the second group — the insurgents — we see Elizabeth Warren leading the charge, and so far refusing to triangulate, to settle for less than a fight that puts teeth on the floor, Democratic teeth as well. Their number is six after the first round of battle.
In the third group — the "Merkley" group — we see many progressives who perhaps lack that fight, for whatever reason. (I'll examine those reasons separately; there's news from the caucus meeting.) On this fight they were less than insurgent, less than rebellious. Their number is 16.
If the Merkley group would all join the six insurgents — unlikely, I know, but still — the insurgency would have an impressive increase in strength. According to the latest count, the next Senate is 44 Democrats, 2 Independents, and 54 Republicans. Assuming "centrist" Angus King still caucuses with the Democrats, imagine if the insurgency caucus swells to 22 votes out of 46. (And frankly, without Angus King, 22 votes in a caucus of 45 is even better. Addition by subtraction, remember?)
What's not to like? Democrats would benefit (think of the increase in credibility). The insurgents would individually benefit (think of the increase in credibility). And the people themselves (remember them?) would also benefit. What's not to like?
Will Warren draw the 16 to her side? Will they quiet the fight in her? Or do we have a stalemate in alignment that is unlikely to change? These are fascinating days for a fly on the wall. Welcome to the wall.