Just days before “change” comes to Washington, Capitol Hill Democrats are already sounding a discordant note. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein was briefly off-message when President-elect Barack Obama chose Leon Panetta as his new head of the CIA. Key Democrats have balked at the tax cuts in Obama’s stimulus plan and the House has already voted to pare them down. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pointedly told Roll Call, “I don’t work for Barack Obama — I work with him.”
How well Democratic congressional leaders, eager to flex their muscles after eight years of George W. Bush, actually work with the new president remains to be seen. If recent history is any guide, it is perfectly understandable why Obama might prefer to have dinner at George Will’s house. “Don’t you expect for Democrats to act like Republicans,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn told Bloomberg News. “Democrats will be Democrats.”
And Republicans will be Republicans, it seems. Already leading GOP legislators seem ill at ease in the role of loyal opposition. Take for example the confirmation hearings of Hillary Clinton. The conservative case against Hillary is nothing new — Whitewater, Travelgate, her conduct on the Watergate Committee staff, and countless other Clinton scandals well known to faithful readers — and her credentials for being secretary of state are, one might say, thin.
Yet when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on her nomination, Republicans could muster little more than a few questions about donors to Bill Clinton’s well-endowed foundation. Every Republican on the committee except for one — Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana — voted to advance her nomination. Some conservatives outside of Congress reacted to Obama’s choice of Hillary as if it were a positive sign about the direction of his administration.
For Republicans, this is nothing new. When Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a former chief litigator of the ACLU’s women’s rights project (giving some hint as to where she might stand on the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade), to the Supreme Court, Republican leaders like Sen. Orrin Hatch praised the choice. Only three Republicans — conservatives Jesse Helms, Don Nickles, and Bob Smith — voted against her confirmation. Ginsburg went on to become arguably the most liberal member of the Supreme Court.
A case could be made that senators should respect a president’s right to appoint qualified judges, regardless of party affiliation. Whatever her constitutional and political views, Ginsburg possessed solid legal qualifications. Unfortunately, ever since the Senate rejected Robert Bork over twenty years ago, it has been clear that any Republican senator who takes this approach is practicing the political equivalent of unilateral disarmament.
Why? Because, as Congressman Clyburn would put it, Democrats will be Democrats. President Bush’s nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito were supremely well qualified for seats on the nation’s highest court. Half the Democrats in the Senate voted against the mild-mannered Roberts. Alito, whose conservatism was somewhat better documented, won just four Democratic votes. All of the Democrats who voted for Alito came from red states, like most of the Democrats who voted for Clarence Thomas in 1991.
Republicans often don’t take matters of moral and constitutional principle like Roe v. Wade as seriously as their Democratic counterparts do. That’s why Democratic presidential candidates habitually promise to make Roe a litmus test for their major judicial nominees while GOP nominees usually decline to do so. Democrats, on the other hand, will pick fights with presidents of their own party to preserve the power of their committee chairmanships more readily than some conservative Republicans will fight on issues like Roe.
There are exceptions, of course. House Minority Leader John Boehner is showing signs that he won’t simply sign off on a stimulus package regardless of content or price tag. “Oh my God,” he stammered in response to Appropriation Committee Chairman David Obey’s $825 billion handiwork. Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership has taken away much of the Republican minority’s ability to reshape legislation by restricting motions to recommit and add amendments to bills. Democratic committee chairs have also been freed of term limits.
Despite their tough talk, congressional Democrats will probably turn out to be fairly eager to please Obama. Dianne Feinstein quickly backed away from her early skepticism about Panetta as CIA director, announcing “all systems are go.” And Republicans do face a difficult task in finding their footing as an opposition party — rejected by the country in the last two elections and faced with a new chief executive with positive approval ratings, it won’t be easy to find ways to constructively oppose the Obama administration without appearing obstructionist.
There might be one good way to learn, however: watch the Democrats being Democrats.