Sequestration Round Two

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

12 February 2013

Homer Vending Machine

Congress resigns itself to the inevitability of the sequestration

Stop me if you've heard this one before. The US is facing an entirely self-created fiscal crisis which if not averted could push the country back into recession. But sure enough that's just where we find ourselves. On March 1st, unless Congress and the President can reach some alternative agreement, the dreaded budget sequestration will go into effect reducing government spending by $86.5 billion dollars over the current fiscal year and $1.2 trillion over the next ten. 

The cuts were part of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) which was set to take effect at the beginning of this year. However, Congress delayed its implementation by three months as part of the last minute deal to aver the fiscal cliff/austerity crisis. 

 The $1.2 trillion in cuts are split evenly between defense and non-defense discretionary spending and are crudely egalitarian in nature. All federal programs would be cut by an equal amount meaning that agencies couldn't pick and choose which areas of their budget to protect. This was intentional as the goal was to make the policy so unpalatable that both sides would be pressured to agree on an alternative way of addressing the deficit.

Responsible long-term debt reduction would also be back loaded so as to not suck large amounts of money out of an economy still suffering from a lack of demand. But there's no such prudence in the BCA. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that GDP would be cut in half if these policies remain in effect for the rest of the year.

In some respects this new threat is more worrisome than either the first fiscal cliff or the debt ceiling negotiations. It's not that the cuts would be more damaging. Luckily, we no longer have to worry about large-scale tax increases or defaulting on debt obligations. But what's troubling this time around is that there may not be the same incentives in place to facilitate a compromise. 

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An inability to reach a deal to avert the January 1st fiscal cliff  would have meant the total expiration of the Bush tax cuts-something both sides agreed was unacceptable. And Republicans couldn't avoid higher taxes simply by refusing to act. As such, while it was always possible that negotiations would drag on through the early part of the year it was inevitable that some sort of agreement was going to be reached.

Similarly, thee consequences of not raising the borrowing limit would have been so catastrophic that it seemed very likely-if not certain-that Republicans would come to their senses rather than be blamed for a massive unforced error. 

But this time around the calculation isn't so clear. No one thinks that that the sequestration is good policy. But Republican leadership in Congress is saying that it would be preferable to any deal featuring higher taxes. By contrast, President Obama has made clear that he will not accept any alternative agreement that dosen't feature a 1:1 ratio of new revenues to spending cuts.

It's also an issue that could cause divsions within the Republican caucus. The GOP has long been a party that emphasises a strong defence and low taxes. The coming standoff is a test as to which they see as the lesser of two evils.

The simplest and best solution would be just to mutually agree to get rid of the sequestration all together. Republicans don't have to stomach higher taxes. Democrats don't have to worry about an anti-Keynesian shock to the economy. And we could focus on the most pressing problem-getting back to full employment-instead of the deficit which is decreasing faster than at any point since WWII. Then as the economy stabilises we can work on reducing the long-term debt in a fiscally responsible way. 

Of course things are never that easy in Washington. And Congress' idea that this is some unavoidable problem is like Homer being unable to get his hand out of the vending machine because he won't let go of the candy bar.


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A Populist State of the Union

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

12 February 2013

Tuesday's State of the Union  address is President Obama's first major opportunity of his second term to offer a comprehensive defence of his legislative goals. The President's mission this speech-as well as in the years ahead-should be to offer a populist message that allows Democrats to leverage public support for a progressive political agenda.

The 2012 elections were a fairly decisive rejection of the Republican Party platform. President Obama coasted to a second term and Democrats won the popular vote in both the House and Senate elections. However, Republicans maintained controlled of the House due to gerrymandering and structural advantages and the filibuster still provides the GOP with de facto veto power in the Senate.  As such, the legislative gridlock that's paralysed Washington over the last two years is likely to continue into Obama's second term.

Democrats' s best response is to avoid what John Judis dubs an "insider strategy" and "instead transfer the fight for their the electorate where they hold the advantage." This means no more vague statements about priorities and then leaving Congress alone to work out all of the legislative details as Obama did with healthcare reform. Instead, the President needs to take a more active role in shaping bills and applying pressure to the legislature. Obama did this well during his  proposal on immigration reform late last month. "If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away," he explained in his speech in Las Vegas.

The President needs to reiterate this message in his State of the Union address. And he also should make a point of reaching out directly to citizens and other grassroots organisations-explaining that he needs their help in getting Congress to take action. 

It's true that political science research shows that the power of the bully pulpit is greatly overstated. The president dosen't have the capacity to bend the public or members of Congress to his will with rhetoric alone. But Obama's objective isn't to change minds; it's to marshal existing public support  for many of his policy propsoals. 

Ninety-two per cent of Americans want universal background checks on all gun sales, a figure that  includes eighty five percent of NRA households. Fifty-five per cent  support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants-a number that's almost certain to grow in coming years as the Hispanic percentage of the population increases. And sixty-eight per cent favour Obama's fiscal cliff proposal to allow the federal government to negotiate prescription prices for Medicare recipients with drug companies.

Democrats faces two conflicting realities. The public is largely receptive to many of their policies and favourable demographic trends mean this isn't likely to change at any point in the near future. At the same time, the American political system-and its entrenched interest groups-make it very easy for a determined opposition to stymie the majority and block change. The challenge for Democrats is to find ways of effectively utilizing their advantage in numbers in order to bring about legislative change. I don't have all the answers of how this can be done. But it should start with President Obama's speech tomorrow.

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Marco Rubio volunteers for nasty, thankless mission

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

11 February 2013

Ah, the State of the Union response. Where Next Big Things go to die.

Remember Bobby Jindal, Republican up-and-comer? It's tough to remember now, but back in the early days of 2009, that kid was golden. Not like he is now: a well-regarded and influential GOP governor. No, in the dark days after President Obama had first been elected, Louisiana's Jindal was considered the future of the party, the man who would lead them out of the wilderness, and a surefire contender in 2012. A charismatic and considered politician whose Indian heritage would inure the party against charges it was becoming old and white.

Then Jindal gave the State of the Union reply. His address, filled with clumsy bon mots like "Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington," was widely panned and Jindal slunk back to Louisiana. When 2012 rolled around, his name was barely in contention for the GOP nomination; when Republicans dreamed up governors who could save them from their lacklustre field, they thought of Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels, not Bobby Jindal. It's only now that Jindal has started to regain some of his lustre, and that's through a combination of extremist tax policy and the winning tactic of calling his own party the "stupid party."

It's not just Jindal. Virginia governor Bob McDonnell's 2010 response was awkwardly staged and awkwardly delivered, while Mitch Daniels in 2012 was at least talented enough to deliver an entirely forgettable response. (He has since left politics and is now president of Purdue University.) I suppose you could point to Paul Ryan as someone who made it through a SOTU reply unscathed — and even went on to become his party's vice-presidential nominee — but this seems more a function of his party's refusal to allow his celebrity to wilt than any particular talent he showed. And he was overshadowed anyway by the shenanigans of Michele Bachmann, who that year gave the deeply weird "Tea Party response."

And now Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a charismatic and considered politician whose Latino heritage, Republicans hope, will help inure their party against charges it is becoming old and white, is to give the 2013 response. For someone who is, like Jindal once was, considered a leading contender for his party's presidential nomination, this is a high-risk, low-reward task. At best, he'll deliver an entirely forgettable reply to Obama's speech, filled with Republican bromides. But there's also a decent chance he'll end up looking silly.

That's because the SOTU reply is a tough, thankless job. Coming immediately after the president has publicly flaunted all the many trappings of his office, delivered before the entirety of Congress, the response automatically looks cut-rate by contrast. Because it's delivered straight after the president has finished speaking, the speech is never more than a laundry list of party talking points. Much of the television audience has switched off anyway, leaving only wonks and partisans behind. There are few ways to look and many ways to look bad.

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Obama's victory becomes even less suprising

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

4 February 2013

Back in early October I argued that post-election analysis often misses the forest for the trees; focusing narrowly on campaign tactics and strategy instead of the underlying trends that are often driving the race.

We saw the same thing this time around, with pundits quick to credit the Obama campaigns GOTV efforts or Mitt Romney's incompetence for the president's impressive showing. In actuality though, there wasn't anything too shocking about the electoral results. When the economy is gradually improving the incumbent president is generally a small favourite to get a second term. And while Obama slightly outperformed the fundamentals there wasn't anything especially odd about the final result.

And now the  release of the January job's report makes the president's re-election seem even more typical. The Bureau of Labor Statistics had previously estimated that the economy was adding around 150,000 jobs a month in 2012 but the new benchmark revisions have pushed this number up to around 181,000. And while the economy actually contracted slightly during the fourth quarter of last year due to a large drop in defence spending, job growth remained solid with 247,000 new jobs added in November.

We're a long way from full employment and the economic picture still isn't especially cheery. But all things considered this wasn't a bad climate for the incumbent to run in.


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A defence of dysfunction

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

1 February 2013

A few weeks ago, during a discussion of the differences between US and Australian politics, a friend expressed frustration over the lack of party discipline in the American System. The thing is, she explained, sometimes individual politicians just have to be willing to suppress their interests for the collective good of the party or else you'll never get anything done. We get that here in Australia. 

It's an understandable sentiment. It's easy to feel pessimistic when John Boehner can't exert any control over his caucus or when rural Democrats distance themselves from President Obama's positions on gun control or climate change. 

However, there's a price to be paid for unanimity, and a danger in creating some monolithic conception of party ideology over and above what its members actually support.

West Virginia Senator Joe Machin may have a different view on climate change than most other Democrats. But it's a position that reflects the feelings of his constituents. And to act like there's a duty for him to abide by party norms is to ignore the concerns of the West Virginians who voted him into office. 

Similarly, the rise of the Tea Party has not been a positive development in American politics, but this wasn't some unwanted change forced upon a helpless public. Voters were frustrated with Obamacare and the bleak economic climate. Conservatives were angry with a Republican establishment that they  saw as unwilling to take a hard line stance on spending. The people who showed up to the polls wanted change and they got it.

And  there's something healthy about the fact that an outside political movement could shift the political debate so quickly. That veteran politicians, with more money, name recognition and the support of their party leadership, could be ousted in primary challenges.  

Because while progressives might be frustrated by the changes in the GOP over the last several years the process cuts both ways. Ultimately the same populist  forces and electoral mechanisms that helped the Tea Party come to power also allowed a little known senator from Illinois to upset Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. And that provides a sense of hope for those outside the current system who want to change it. 

The US political system is a messy and often dysfunctional one. And there's countless changes I would want to make to improve its effectiveness. But while a government without primaries and party line votes might be more efficient at times it also sacrifices much when it comes to democratic accountability. And that's not a trade off I'd want to make.

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A better way to 'rig' elections

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

30 January 2013

Good news for fains of fair elections and democratic legitimacy! Taegan Goddard reports that the Republican plan to allocate electoral votes by congressional district may be "losing momentum."

 If applied nationally such a system would have allowed Mitt Romney to be elected president despite receiving nearly five million less votes than Obama. I'd love to hear anyone defend such an outcome as representative of the will of the people.

But even this is a charitable interpretation of what  Republicans were trying to do. This wasn't a serious attempt at national reform. Rather, Republican controlled state legislatures in some blue leaning swing states were/are trying to rewrite their own rules while leaving the current system in place for the rest of the country. Siphoning away Democratic electoral votes in Pennsylvania while maintaining the winner take all system in Mississippi is a complete perversion of the electoral process.

So naturally we'd all be better off if the GOP stops trying to find ways to rewrite electoral rules and instead focuses on appealing to voters right?

Maybe not. In fact, there's a straightforward change that Republicans could push for that would make them more competitive in upcoming elections while simultaneously improving  American democracy; get rid of the Electoral College. 

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I've never found either of the two major arguments in favour of the Electoral College convincing.

1. It keeps candidates from spending all of their time in big cities like New York and Los Angeles. 

Who knows exactly how candidates would allocate their time if there was a national popular vote-although I'm fairly confident their travel schedules would be more diverse than they are now-but either way I don't like the idea of artificially increasing the influence of some areas as a means of getting Obama or Romney to pay attention to their interests. Candidates go to cities not because urbanites are special or more deserving of attention but because that's where the majority of people live. As former Chief Justice Earl Warren eloquently explained in a slightly different context; "Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests." The fundamental idea of American democracy is one person one vote; enshrine that system via a popular vote and let the candidates figure out how best to get as many of these votes as possible.

Besides, it's not like rural interests are underrepresented in the American political system. After all, Wyoming gets the same number of senators as California. 

2. It localizes recounts. A national recount in a close presidential election would be a nightmare. Better that it be concentrated in one or two states rather than spread out across all fifty. 

A national recount would certainly be  problematic. But so would an entire presidential election coming down to a tiny number of votes in one state. And there's probably more potential for fraud and abuse in the second case then the first. Timothy Noah makes the point well:

The national difference between Gore and Bush may have been 500,000 votes in 2000 (actually 543,895), but the outcome-changing difference in Florida was a mere 537 votes (according to the official tally, anyway). There’s no end to the ways you can massage a 537-vote plurality for one candidate into a 537-vote for another one. And there’s a powerful motivation to do so when that narrow majority can be leveraged in a populous, winner-take-all state like Florida into an outsized share of the Electoral College.

So yes, abolishing the Electoral College would be good in and of itself. But luckily for Republicans the push for a national popular vote need not be a purely altruistic endeavour.

The GOP is currently at a structural disadvantage in the Electoral College that could hurt their chances in future elections. Nate Silver outlined the extent of the problem in a November 8th column, estimating that Republicans  "may have had to win the national popular vote by three percentage points to be assured of winning the electoral college." 

This point may be somewhat overstated-at the time he underestimated Obama's eventual margin of victory in the national popular vote by nearly 1.5 points-but the general argument still holds.

One can get a rough sense of a party's Electoral College advantage or lack thereof by comparing the winning candidate's margin of victory in the 'tipping point state' that gave Obama his 270th electoral vote to his overall margin of victory in the national popular vote. 

In 2012 Colardo was the tipping point state for the second consectuive election with Obam winning it and its 9 electoral votes by 5.4 points. In contrast, the president only won the popular vote by 3.9 points. 

In other words, it's easier for Obama (and probably other Democratic candidates) to get to 270 electoral votes than it is to win the popular vote.

This trend may become even more pronounced in the years to come. Republican candidates have been running up record margins in already solid red states while simultaneously losing ground in swing states like Colorado and Virginia. Such tradeoffs wouldn't matter as much in a national popular vote scheme but it's an especially harmful trend in an Electoral College system. 

Historically conservatives have tended to favour the current system while progressives have been more sceptical. As such, a GOP committed to abolishing the Electoral College could probably find a lot of allies on the other end of the political spectrum.

It also wouldn't be as difficult as one might think. A Constitutional Amendment is always a difficult sell; but the easier option is to simply get states to assign their Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote once enough other states agree to the proposal. If a group of states with 270 cumulative electoral votes signed off on this idea it would effectively create a direct election. So far eight states and the District of Columbia have done just this leaving them 138 electoral college votes short of 270.

Ths wouldn't be a long term fix for the GOP. But it would increases their chances somewhat in the next couple of election cycles. And with so much at stake every little bit helps.

So how about it Republicans? Ditch an anitquated system of voting and give your presidential aspirations a boost.


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Are the budget hawks finished?

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

30 January 2013

I wouldn't be as foolhardy to predict the demise of austerity fever in American politics so soon, but the eternally gloomy Paul Krugman seems to think otherwise:

President Obama’s second Inaugural Address offered a lot for progressives to like. There was the spirited defense of gay rights; there was the equally spirited defense of the role of government, and, in particular, of the safety net provided by Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. But arguably the most encouraging thing of all was what he didn’t say: He barely mentioned the budget deficit.

Mr. Obama’s clearly deliberate neglect of Washington’s favorite obsession was just the latest sign that the self-styled deficit hawks — better described as deficit scolds — are losing their hold over political discourse. And that’s a very good thing.

"An era has ended," Krugs triumphs. Let's hope so. Krugman is (not suprisingly) right on the economics. But the politics? Well, I've rarely seen him this cheery about anything short of Arcade Fire... 

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Midterms matter four Court appointees

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

28 January 2013

The fate of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Supreme Court seat was one of the most important-albeit least discussed-issues at stake in the presidential election. Ginbsbrug, who is identified with the liberal wing of the court, is 79 and has undergone surgeries for colon and pancreatic cancer.

No one doubts her grit and determination. In June she broke two ribs but kept the injury private while serving out the rest of the term. In all likelihood though, an Obama loss in November would have given Romney the chance to appoint her successor.

Liberals no longer have to worry about this counterfactual as Ginsburg will almost certainly retire during the next four years. But we're not past the point of elections playing an important role in determining who replaces her on the Court.

Any Obama appointee would need to be confirmed by a majority of the Senate. Right now that shouldn't be a problem. Democrats control 55 seats so barring a filibuster, which has only been used once for a Supreme Court justice, Obama could get his nominee seated. But after the 2014 midterms all bets are off. 

Due to retirements and their success in the 2008 Senate elections Democrats will be facing an extremely unfavourable map in 2014. Barring the retirement of Susan Collins I can't find a single Republican Senate seat which Democrats have close to a 50-50 chance of winning. In contrast, I count four Democratic seats where Republicans likely start out as favourites (Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana and West Virginia) and roughly ten others where they have a legitimate shot of a pickup.

We'll have to wait and see how the midterm landscape shapes up, but at this stage there's a very real possibility that Republicans will reclaim control of the upper chamber in less than two years.

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The type of justice Obama could get through the confirmation process could be very different then than now. There would be intense pressure on Republicans senators not to cast the decisive yay vote that would get the president's nominee confirmed. GOP senators could reject moderate liberals in the mold of Elena Kagan and instead pressure the president to appoint someone even more centrist.

We may be heading for just this sort of standoff. Ginsburg has stated that she wants to serve as long as Justice Louis Brandeis, which would slot her for retirement in 2015 at the age of 82. Ginsburg is fully entitled to step down on her own terms whenever she sees fit. But, if she is concerned about ensuring that her replacement on the Court continues to uphold her legacy, there's a strong argument that it would make sense to retire after the next term. 

In any case, this issue speaks to the importance of Obama prioritizing all judicial appointments during the next two years. The president did not spend much political capitol on nominations during his first term and consequently vacancies on the district and federal courts rose 51%. If you're going to address this failure now is the time do it. 

There's still legislative tactics that Republicans can use to slow down and block nominees but it's obviously much  easier to get judges through the Senate when your party controls the upper chamber. Democrats have a lot they want to accomplish over the next several years, but they shouldn't let judicial nominations fall off the agenda. 


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Who killed the 2011 grand bargain?

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

25 January 2013

A week ago I wrote a piece featuring examples of the tension. between the Republican caucus and GOP leadership:

It's no secret that Boehner has had serious problems controlling his caucus in recent years. In 2011 he and Obama were close to reaching a grand bargain on debt reduction when he abruptly walked away from negotiations after it became clear that Republicans would reject the agreement. The ultimate embarrassment came this past December. Boehner, in an attempt to gain leverage in the fiscal cliff negotiations, introduced a bill raising taxes on those making over $1 million. The Speaker said he was confident his party would support the measure but it turns out he'd miscalculated and was forced to quickly pull back the bill.

It's worth sayings bit more about the 2011 failed grand bargain since I don't think my characterisation was entirely fair. According to Matt Bai of The New York Times Boehner and the Obama administration reached a preliminary agreement on debt deal that would have raised  $800 billion in new revenue in exchange for about $450 billion in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid over the next ten years and larger cuts to these programs and Social Security down the road. However, in response to liberal backlash the Obama administration went back and asked for about $400 billion in new revenue. Boehner initially seemed open to a new deal but then facing intense push back from within his own party abruptly broke off negotiations. 

I don't think there was ever any real chance of this getting done-it would have been almost impossible to get Tea Party Republicans to sign off on any bill that raised taxes by any amount. But the reasons for the deal breaking down were more complex and bipartisan than I made it seem.

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Moderate Filibuster Reform

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

25 January 2013

Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell announced Thursday that they had reached a bipartisan agreement on a modest set of filibuster reforms. The new rules will limit the length of post-cloture debate for executive branch and appellate court nominee and simplify the process for sending a bill to conference or proceeding on to the next piece of legislation. These changes aren't entirely insignificant, but it's a far cry from the much broader reforms many were calling for.

Regular readers will know the importance I attach to filibuster reform. The government simply cannot function if the minority party requires the majority to get 60 votes to pass virtually any piece of legislation. Consequently, itt's disappointing to see only minor tweaks to a major problem.

At the same time, none of this is that surprising. The Senate is an old fashioned institution filled with 100 people who think that they should be president; regardless of political preferences it's hard to get any group like that to agree on anything that might limit their own individual power and prestige. 

Greg Sargent gets at the heart of the reason that the Reid-McConnell deal is so inadequate. 

Norman Ornstein, an observer of Congress for decades, literally wrote the book on GOP obstructionism. So I asked him what he thought of the disappointing filibuster reform deal reached today between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. His reply:

“To avoid disruption right now, they opted for greater efficiency in the operation of the Senate, rather than providing a much higher hurdle for obstructionism. They are going to make it easier to move things, but they are not extracting a price for bad behavior right now.”

This is exactly the problem. Today’s reforms do nothing to discourage, or extract any price whatsoever for, precisely the type of unprecedented and destructive party-wide obstructionism that launched the push for reform in the first place.

The package of reforms doesn’t include the “talking filibuster,” and it does not include the provision that would have put the onus on the minority to come up with 41 votes to sustain the filibuster. What’s more, the threshold remains 60 votes both to end debate (which was probably never going to change) and for the motion to proceed (which was supposed to change, but in the end was only tweaked). You can debate endlessly how effective the talking filibuster and the 41 vote requirement would have been in discouraging concerted obstructionism. But those were at least efforts to try to address the problem. The current reforms don’t try to address it at all.

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And Gregory Kroger provides a nice overview of the changes and some reasons for optimism.

I expect that this package of reforms will be criticized for what it is not. It does not lower the cloture threshold or set up a realistic process for forcing filibustering senators to hold the floor. Nonetheless, it does address some of the worst problem areas: nominations, conference committees, and redundant filibusters as the Senate debates about what to debate. What I do like about these reforms is that they focus on an under-discussed source of Senate paralysis: the time lags built into the operation of the cloture rule. It's not just the cloture rule's supermajority threshold that retards the Senate; the time required to wait for a cloture vote and the 30 hours of "debate" time after the Senate votes to limit discussion are extremely costly in a chamber with a limited budget of floor time. They force the Senate to waste its days and nights, to remain in session but empty, and allow individual senators great power over petty issues. Senator Reid will doubtless be blamed for selling out the true reformers of the Senate instead of attempting a grand confrontation with the Republicans. Reid has a persuasive if indelicate answer: there probably weren't enough Democratic votes to push through more drastic reforms, and the short-term payoffs for any major change would be limited by the Republican majority in the House.


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