Joe Wants to Filibuster. Why Not Let Him?


[Scroll down for update]

Here we go again.

In case you somehow missed it: Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman has decided he’d rather be a spoiler than a reformer. He’s declared he’ll filibuster any health reform bill that includes an expansion of Medicare to cover people as young as 55, despite the fact that he supported the very same idea just three months ago — not to mention while running for vice president in 2000. Plenty of people have thoroughly documented this hypocrisy, as well as the fact that there has been no consistent policy rational for Lieberman’s ongoing, shifting objections to reform ideas. Ezra Klein has been offering cogent descriptions of Lieberman's intellectual back flips on his Washington Post policy blog.


But, you know what? All of this is to be expected. I mean, who is really surprised to see Lieberman thrashing around at the 11th hour? Whether he’s doing the bidding of the insurance industry nestled in his home state or just throwing a political fit at the Democratic Party that spurned him, it’s plain that Lieberman isn’t now and never has negotiated health reform in good faith. No, the outrage here isn’t Lieberman. It’s that the White House and Senate leadership just may let him get away with it.

Like any bratty bully, the only way to deal with Lieberman is by making him spin himself out into exhaustion. He wants to filibuster? Let him. Indeed, dare him to do it. Let him stand on the Senate floor, alongside a bunch of wing-nut Republicans talking about a socialist takeover, and hold up a hugely popular reform process. Regular folks get lost in all the twists and turns of heated, dense policy debates. So let Lieberman spend days of wall-to-wall filibuster coverage crystalizing this battle for America: The president and the Democrats want to fix something everybody agrees is deeply broken; while Lieberman, after months and months of painstaking efforts to find a compromise, is using a procedural weapon he once decried to fight for the status quo. Anybody wanna take bets on whether Lieberman or President Obama would do a better job explaining the stakes to America?

Remember the 1995 government shutdown? When Newt Gingrich’s GOP refused to pass a reasonable budget — Medicare's fate hung in the balance then, too — Bill Clinton let Washington literally grind to a halt. Then he used his masterful rhetorical skills to paint the dispute in stark, big-picture terms. Americans blamed Gingrich and his GOP revolution. Why? Because Clinton had revealed the Republicans as bad faith players who would stop at nothing to politically undermine the president. That’d be Lieberman’s fate as well and, for once, the reformers in this battle could actually negotiate from a place of strength.

But this White House instead acts like a pushover parent with an out-of-control brood. It’s so afraid of being called politically abusive that it won’t punish even the brattiest senator on the Hill. So rather than propping up Harry Reid to push back on Lieberman, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is reportedly urging Reid to give the crying child whatever it wants. That’ll work just as poorly for Reid and Obama — and the rest of us — as it does in any parent. Not only won’t it quiet Lieberman, his consequence-free fit opens the door to countless similar outbursts. Here’s how one unnamed Democratic aide put it to Huffington Post’s Sam Stein:

“The big problem with Lieberman is that his saying that he will vote 'no' gives cover and opens the door to about a half dozen other senators who can now do the same. So this really won't be about Reid having to find one more vote to balance Lieberman. Which means that either health reform is doomed or a bunch more deals will need to be cut watering down the reform even more. I guess the question is, at what point does it all become a wash?”


UPDATE: Of course, the Dems did the opposite. They emerged from thier caucus meeting and told reporters the Medicare buy-in and public option are both likely dead, pending a meeting at the White House tomorrow. The Wonk Room has some ideas about what, if anything can get done in terms of true reform at this point.