Obama Warned You--The Senate Can Be A Mess

The commonly cited reason for the White House's detachment from crafting health legislation has been the 1994 debacle: President Obama and his advisers have seen what happens when the White House overreaches onto senators' turf. But maybe another reason is that the president knows from experience what a messy place the Senate can be.

In several passages in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, Obama discussed the peculiarities of the body and the problems of moving legislation through the easily obstructed upper House. Pointing out that it exists because of the compromise forged between Northern and Southern states to "defend against the passion of the moment, a defender of minority rights and state sovereignty, but also a tool to protect the wealthy from the rabble, and assure slaveholders of non-interference with their peculiar institution," he describes the process behind bringing a bill to the floor, and how little real business actually gets done on the floor—it's all about back-room wrangling.

Perhaps the most contentious legislative issue of Obama's short tenure in the Senate was the 2005 controversy over President Bush's judicial nominees and the filibuster, in which Republican leaders threatened to eliminate the maneuver. The book's passages demonstrate Obama's skepticism about it:

The Constitution makes no mention of the filibuster; it is a Senate rule, one that dates back to the very first Congress. The basic idea is simple: Because all Senate business is conducted by unanimous consent, any senator can bring proceedings to a halt by exercising his right to unlimited debate and refusing to move on the next order of business. In other words, he can talk....So long as he or like-minded colleagues are willing to stay on the floor and talk, everything else has to wait—which gives each senator an enormous amount of leverage, and a determined minority effective veto power over any piece of legislation.

So there you have it. He doesn't offer much in the way of suggestions for getting around the problem though. What about Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin's suggestion that it's time to get rid of the filibuster? Sorry, Tom:

To me, the threat to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominations was just one more example of Republicans chainging the rules in the middle of the game. Moreover, a good argument could be made that a vote on judicial nominations was precisely the situation where the filibuster's supermajority requirement made sense.

Health reform, as one of the biggest pieces of legislation in recent memory, seems to fit the same description.

But--as he has done since entering the White House—Obama wags a finger at obstructionist minorities, too: "Elections meant something....Instead of relying on Senate procedures, there was one way to ensure that judges on the bench reflected our values, and that was to win at the polls." Republicans are working on that one as well.