Financial Reform Cloture Votes: When Losing Is Good Politics

For the third time in as many days, Democratic senators failed to garner enough votes to bring a financial-regulator-reform bill to the floor of the Senate for debate (UPDATE: GOP senators have just decided to allow the bill to move to the floor and will attempt to change it in open debate). Both parties' blustering notwithstanding—GOP senators say they're concerned about preventing further "taxpayer-funded bailouts" of firms deemed too big to fail, while Democrats railed against the opposition for refusing even to allow a bill to come to the floor—the strategy of putting the legislation up for a cloture vote day after day only to see it fail every time seems, at first blush, like mere short-term political theater to force the GOP's hand. Will calling for a daily vote really put enough pressure on Republicans to get them to relent?

It's certainly possible that Democrats are bashing their heads against that wall to try to force GOP senators to engage in open debate on the financial regulatory bill, and that the strategy could pay off, particularly with Goldman Sachs execs offering answers (or nonanswers) in a high-profile Senate investigative panel hearing yesterday. But it's equally likely that Democrats are trying to gain an early advantage going into the fall midterms and what is sure to be a contentious election season.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, himself facing a tough reelection bid, offered a template of the approach, calling into question GOP senators' patriotism: "All the talk by Republicans about wanting to do something about this bill before it gets on the floor is really anti-Senate, anti-American," Reid said. "It appears they're more concerned about taking care of the fat cats on Wall Street."

Apart from the ridiculous hyperbole of Reid's claim—actually, Harry, voting according to congressional rules not to bring a bill up for debate is neither anti-Senate nor anti-American, and back-room wheeling and dealing for votes is what Congress is all about—the sentiment highlights perfectly the Democrats' potential campaign talking points. After all, how better to switch voters from thinking about how much they dislike big government to how much they dislike the big banks that brought the country to the brink of fiscal ruin?

Passing financial reform might be good for Democrats, but voters in November will still be suffering from high unemployment. So being able to blame Republicans for blocking it would be just as good, if not better. And if Republicans block until they ultimately cave, it's a win all around for the Dems. They can argue that conservatives repeatedly shot down legislation that would prevent hyperwealthy bankers from making millions while ordinary folks lose their jobs (witness Reid's "fat cats" remark). The more often Republicans have to vote against financial-reform legislation, regardless of the reason, the better.

And this issue could even surpass health care among swing voters. By November, Americans will have had a chance to notice the distinct absence of jackbooted thugs breaking down their doors to pry their health insurance from their metaphorical hands, whereas the very real financial pain of Wall Street bankers' malfeasance will still be lingering.

Click here for a slideshow of noteworthy Senate filibusters through the years.