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While our beloved Kula is moving, I'm filling in to give the Kula Krew a place to gather for Koffee, Kuddles, and Konversation.  In this morning's offering, we explore the utter failure of the Obama administration as Senate Republicans stand united to reject his ... oh wait ... Enter Reality, Stage Left....

More below the fold....

In case you haven't heard the news and missed the several Rec Listed diaries on the topic already, the Senate reached a bipartisan deal on the stimulus bill, estimated at between $780 billion and $827 billion.  The deal was brokered by Senators Ben Nelson (D-NE), Susan Collins (R-ME), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Arlen Specter (R-PA), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT).

As I count it, that's four Republicans[*], enough to force cloture on an expected filibuster led by David Vitter (R-LA) and get the bill passed, if Harry Reid can hold the Senate Democratic caucus together.  Vitter already began trying to delay the bill last night, but Reid announced that he will keep the Senate in session over the weekend, and word is that the bill will be passed by Monday.

*Update note: For purposes of reliably Democratic votes, I count Joe Lieberman as a Republican because he votes with the GOP often enough that Obama cannot assume he will vote with the Democrats.

What happened?  Two things.  First, a lot of hard work by President Obama and his staff, by Senate Democrats, and by northeastern Republicans who don't want to sacrifice their constituents on the altar of a Taliban-like GOP "insurgency".  Second, the Labor Department announced yesterday that another 600,000 U.S. workers lost their jobs in January, and that February is expected to be worse yet.

Enter Reality, Stage Left

The U3 unemployment rate now stands at 7.6%, the highest since 1974.  For historical perspective, the U6 unemployment rate - nearer the calculation used during the Great Depression - is now 13.6%.  That's 1-in-7 non-disabled, working-age Americans unemployed, underemployed (working part-time because they can't find a full-time job), or marginally attached (want to work but haven't been able to even put in a job application in the past month).  That is about half the unemployment rate at the depth of the Depression.

That news spurred a handful of key Republicans to buck party leadership and cut a deal to pass the stimulus bill.  Collins spoke in the Senate yesterday about a Maine paper mill announcing a one-month layoff.  And facing reelection in 2010 with Pennsylvania U3 unemployment nearing 10% and already higher in at least two counties, Specter had no choice but to sign on.

Enter Reality, Stage Left

I used that stage direction because I think it shows something about how President Obama works.  He often talks a bit to the right of where many of us would prefer.  But throughout his campaign he showed the political agility to respond to events.  And consistently, events enabled Obama to tack left.  By "talking right and tacking left," Obama can draw moderate supporters and still chart a generally progressive course.  He can do the latter and retain high approval ratings among moderates because Obama appears to tack left in response to events.

I know some progressives will argue that this stimulus package is hardly to the left of anything, because it's not as big and has less spending than some progressives would like.  But consider that this is still the most expensive single piece of legislation in U.S. history.  And it looks as if it will pass within the first 40 days of Obama's presidency.  No, it's not the stimulus package Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz would have written.  And theirs might be objectively better.  But this is probably the best bill that can get sixty votes in the U.S. Senate.

Enter Reality, Stage Left

Where does this leave bipartisanship?  Are we already, as MeteorBlades writes tonight, in "a post-post-partisan world?"  I don't see it that way.  As I see it, Obama's stimulus bill carried in the House by a nearly 2/3 majority despite opposition from every Republican plus twelve Democrats, and it's likely to pass in the Senate by a similar margin despite almost unanimous GOP opposition.

But to judge bipartisanship by the vote counts is to miss the larger story of how this bill will have passed.  What happened here was an exercise in game theory; it was the Prisoner's Dilemma writ large.  President Obama knew going in that he'd need 3-4 Republicans to break with their party to force cloture, just as he'll need 3-4 Republicans on any major legislative action.  How does he go about that?  By giving the Republicans three choices:

  1. Break with the party to block a filibuster.  The Breakers get major input, because they're most at risk of party (and constituent) retribution.
  1. Bandwagon by voting for the bill, but only after it's certain to pass.  The Bandwagoners get lesser but still significant input as they face less risk of retribution.
  1. Block by opposing the bill.  The Blockers get no policy input, although Obama will still talk and listen to them out of political courtesy, and because some of them may become Breakers and/or Bandwagoners on other legislation in the future.

Because no one runs for the U.S. Congress to be irrelevant, this will begin to pull the Senate and perhaps eventually even a handful of House Republicans over to Obama, even if their leaders remain obstructionist.

By saying "You can work with me, or you can make yourself irrelevant," Obama shows that he's willing to negotiate, but that negotiation is not the same as surrender.  He is, after all, still getting essentially the stimulus bill he requested, save for necessary concessions made to Senate Republican Breakers and Bandwagoners.  And in the end, the Blockers will have made themselves irrelevant, because the legislation still passes.

If Al Franken ultimately prevails in Minnesota and is seated, the stakes get even higher for Republicans, as that's one less Breaker needed.  If Obama continues to show he can move legislation, Republicans who want to be relevant will have an even greater incentive to be among the Breakers, so they won't be able to demand as high a price.  But Obama must still be generous enough to offset the punishment the Breakers will get from the GOP leadership and/or their constituents.

The Blockers will still dominate the conflict-driven cable chatter.  But they won't get to make policy.  And that's "Change We Can Believe In."

Happy Saturday!

Originally posted to NCrissieB on Sat Feb 07, 2009 at 03:19 AM PST.

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