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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Fracturing the Coalition

John Boehner cries It was a move worthy of Harry Reid. Assuming that an extension of key provisions of the PATRIOT Act would pass easily, House Speaker John Boehner put the bill on the fast track, suspending the rules to push it through so they could get right to work on such "job-saving" measures as defunding healthcare reform and shutting down Planned Parenthood. In doing so, Boehner had to raise the bar -- instead of needing a simple majority to pass, the bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass without amendments or debate. Turns out the Speaker's whip count was off a tad and the measure failed by seven votes.

Don't get too excited though. It'll be reintroduced the slow way and it'll pass. Then again, that's what everyone said about it this time. With the bill open to amendments and debate, it may be that opponents can either weaken the bill or insert a poison-pill amendment to give other members an incentive to vote against it. The clock is ticking. If the extension isn't passed, the provisions -- "roving" surveillance, so ability to snoop through personal records (including library records), and the ability to spy on people not affiliated with terrorists groups -- end on February 28.

Good news, to be sure. But the importance of this decidedly temporary defeat isn't the only thing that's being overstated here. Many are crediting the Tea Party with the defeat. The problem with this analysis: many 'baggers voted for the extension and, if you look at the number of those who dissented from their party, it doesn't actually add up.

Dave Weigel points out that while eight Tea Party freshman voted against the bill -- and yes, it needed seven to pass -- they were part of a block of twenty-six GOP dissenters. Handing this victory to the Tea Party may not be extremely accurate, but that hasn't stopped the left from encouraging these newly-minted "mavericks."

"It is time we really remember what the essence of that motto 'Don't Tread on Me' really means. It means you protect your liberty.You stand for freedom..." Rep. Dennis Kucinich said during the debate -- and repeated in a statement after this victory for his side of the argument. "We are all patriots here and we all want America to be protected but we have to remember our Constitutional experience...We didn't hear 'give me liberty or give me a wiretap.' We didn't hear 'don't tread on me... but it's okay to spy.' What we heard was a ringing declaration for freedom.And it was enshrined in our Constitution." Kucinich, one of the leftiest lefties in all of leftiedom, was deliberately hitting on Tea Party themes during and after the debate. It's obvious that he saw PATRIOT Act opponents' opportunity to chip away Republican votes a lot more clearly than did Speaker Boehner or House GOP Whip Eric Cantor.

And, for a victory so temporary, Democrats' joy seemed a little overstated -- from The Hill:

Veteran Democratic Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.) exited the House chamber boasting that the GOP unsuccessfully held the scheduled 15-minute vote open for a total of 35 minutes to twist enough Republican arms to change the outcome.

"They didn't have the votes! They kept trying to get them to switch, but couldn't get them," Frank exclaimed as he walked through reporters in the Speaker's Lobby, which is just off the House floor.

Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay (Mo.) laughed as he told The Hill, "We're so happy, I'm so happy. I voted against it. They tried to get enough Rs to switch their votes, because the Tea Party voted 'no' also... but it wasn't enough."

Seems like a lot of jubilation over what is really just a delay of the nearly inevitable, doesn't it? That's because it's not just about setting the GOP agenda back a couple of weeks -- it's about finding a chink in the Republican Majority's armor.

Like all parties, the Republican Party is really a coalition party made up of people with different priorities. And, like all majority parties, that coalition is broader in the GOP than among the Democrats. The days of "lock-step," robotic Republicanism are over -- up to a point, cutting taxes and spending are still a near-consensus in the party. And people like Boehner and Cantor, whose political chops are centered around a unified front, seem completely unprepared for it . Further, the fact that this vote failed when House leadership thought it was a sure bet shows that they thought Republican dissent was almost impossible. Now Boehner will have to twist arms and wrangle votes like a Pelosi and, frankly, I doubt he's up to the job. A comically oversized gavel doesn't give you oversized competence. There's a lot less scotch and golf in John Boehner's future -- probably a lot less than he's prepared for.


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