The New Civil War

Republican senators let their hatred for organized labor overwhelm the need to keep more than two million Americans working in the automobile industry when the Republicans blocked a loan package to help American carmakers stay in business into 2009.

Although a Senate majority supported the proposed $14 billion loan package, 52-35, on Dec. 11, Democrats did not have the 60 votes they needed to overcome the “gentleman’s filibuster” the Republicans set up to frustrate the rescue plan.

Republicans, mainly from the South, demanded that union workers agree to wage and benefit reductions to bring them down to the level of non-union workers at foreign-owned plants, mainly in the South.

The United Auto Workers, which represents about 150,000 employees of the Big Three automakers, agreed to reduce wages and benefits but balked at the Republican demand for a specific date next year for the cutbacks to take place. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who participated in negotiations on the bill, told reporters lawmakers were “three words” away from a deal. “Had we agreed on a date, any date that’s reasonable, I think it would have passed the Senate with 90 votes,” he said.

Democratic leaders credited Corker with trying to broker a deal. “I respect him immensely for stepping up and making the effort,” said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the banking committee. But it’s hard to believe Corker or the other Republicans were negotiating in good faith. They turned their backs on appeals from Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten to support the package. Republicans continued to circulate the canard that workers at the Big Three plants make upwards of $70 an hour, when the actual figure is about $33 an hour, which is comparable with wages at non-union plants. The Republican attempts to meddle in automotive management also was curious, given the GOP’s usual opposition to Big Government intervention in business affairs.

Labor costs are not what has gotten GM, Ford and Chrysler into trouble. The problem is that too many potential car buyers are too nervous about the economy to invest in a car at this time.

No, in blocking the $14 billion bridge loan to the carmakers, Republicans saw an opportunity to strike a crippling blow at the United Auto Workers, one of the strongest and most progressive unions in the country. The GOP saw it as payback for the UAW’s role in helping Barack Obama sweep the Great Lakes states en route to the White House and increasing the Democratic majority in Congress. The GOP also fired the first shot in the upcoming battle over legislation to make it easier to form a union.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), an auto industry supporter, acknowledged that some of his colleagues simply did not want to help the UAW. “We have many senators from right-to-work states, and I quite frankly think they have no use for labor,” he said.

Some Dems disappointed:?Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, as well as Majority Leader Harry Reid for procedural reasons, voted against cloture (and against the loan). Republicans who voted for the loan included Sens. Kit Bond (Mo.), Sam Brownback (Kan.), Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), Pete Domenici (N.M.), Richard Lugar (Ind.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Voinovich (Ohio) and John Warner (Va.).

It should be noted that 18 of the Republican senators (as well as Baucus and Lincoln) who voted to deny the carmaker loan had previously voted to authorize the $700 billion Wall Street bailout.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) may have thought he was representing Toyota, whose auto assembly plant in Georgetown, Ky., is the company’s biggest plant outside Japan, but he and other Republican senators might get some blowback from local car dealers who were disappointed by the opposition to the financial relief. Delaying it threatens their livelihood.

Jack Kain, a Ford dealer in Versailles, Ky., who was chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association in 2005, told the Lexington Herald-Leader he and other industry representatives met with Kentucky’s congressional delegation the week before the vote and came away feeling that McConnell wouldn’t oppose the bailout. Ron Jackson, president of the Kentucky Automobile Dealers Association, said the collapse of even one of the Big Three would be “devastating to this state” and its auto dealers, who are independent business people. Thousands of jobs could be lost at dealerships and at auto assembly and parts plants around the state, he said.

This is just one more case of Republican abuse of the filibuster, a practice that has become an excuse for Democrats not passing more progressive legislation in the Senate. But it is within Majority Leader Reid’s power to stop the abuse .

In the old days, to filibuster meant standing up in the Senate chamber and talking against a bad bill long enough to get the sponsor to pull it down, unless two-thirds of senators voted for “cloture.” The filibuster was notoriously used by Southern senators to block or slow down civil rights legislation. But filibusters were rare; cloture votes ran in the single digits through the 1960s. In 1975, the rule was changed to let three-fifths of the senators (usually 60) limit debate, but the rule also provided for senators to “filibuster” without actually holding up other legislation—what became known as the “gentleman’s filibuster.”

The majority leader can still require actual filibusters. But Reid has allowed Republicans to block any bill with a “gentleman’s filibuster,” as long as they can muster 41 votes.

Under Reid’s relaxed reading of the filibuster rule, the number of cloture votes skyrocketed to a record 112 in the 110th Congress. That’s more than twice as many as the 54 cloture votes in the 109th Congress in 2005-06, when Republican leaders threatened to eliminate filibusters on judicial nominations. Republicans argued then that they could do away with the filibuster by a simple majority, since the Constitution stipulates that each Senate can set its own rules. A compromise saved the venerable institution of the filibuster as Dems agreed to let all but the worst nominees pass.

Democrats should prevail upon Reid to crack down on the abuse of the filibuster. As Nate Silver, the numbers cruncher at fivethirtyeight.com, wrote Dec. 15, “Republicans are filibustering more and more often because they can get away with it. If Reid can’t get them to pay a greater public price, then the Democrats ought to find somebody else who can.”

First Among Rivals

Barack Obama has assembled veterans of the Clinton and Bush administrations to handle the economic crisis and national security. His “Team of Rivals” philosophy reassured the Washington, D.C., pundits of his centrist inclination just as it has raised questions among progressives and reformers as to whether he still stands for change.

We are not surprised but we still hold out hope that Obama, as the first among rivals, will stand up for progressive principles. Obama made it plain throughout the campaign that he hopes to reach across the aisle when possible to get bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems. We recognize that America is tired of the partisan bickering. But we hope Obama also remembers that he was elected to pursue a progressive agenda that helps working people get universal access to health care, reform the tax code to shift the burden from middle class to wealthier Americans and corporations, withdraw from Iraq and restore the rule of law in the United States and respect for human rights around the world.

Obama picked Cabinet members and department heads who know their way around Washington. We wish more of them were progressives. But it will be up to Obama to make sure his appointees carry out his orders. And it will be up to the rest of us to make sure that Obama carries out our orders.

From The Progressive Populist, Jan. 1-15, 2009

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