As Congress returns to the Capitol this week, the 2010 midterm political season is already well underway. With Republicans hungrily eyeing vulnerable Democratic seats in the House and Senate, and Dems desperate to maintain their majorities in both chambers, most pretenses of policymaking have given way to purely political positioning.
And sometimes, inaction can be more useful politically than action. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Senate, which has basically ground to a halt, thanks to legislative maneuvers like the Republican filibusters (or the threat thereof), which can be defeated only by 60 votes -- two short of the Democrats' current seat count.
Consider the debate about extending unemployment benefits for the millions of Americans who have lost or will soon lose them (at a rate of some 200,000 per week). Senate Republicans have refused to allow the measure to come to the floor for an up or down vote because, they say, it would add to the budget deficit. And it would, to the tune of $35 billion.
Each Side's Agendas Are Crippling Action
"The only reason the unemployment extension hasn't passed is because Democrats simply refuse to pass a bill that doesn't add to the debt," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Democrats say the bill is essential, with 15 million Americans out of work. While the extension may well pass at some point, there's no doubt that both sides see political gain in keeping the bill stalled. Indeed, it seems every major player in the debate has a political agenda that has all but crippled action.
Senate Republicans don't want to give Obama a victory that would surely rally his base and earn him the gratitude of millions of unemployed. Senate Democrats are vocal in supporting the extension, but they privately know they can paint the Republican opposition as heartless and cruel for blocking the bill. President Obama would prefer to hand his base the benefits, but he knows that he, too, can use the issue to clobber the GOP.
The Party of BP and Big Banks?
"Democrats seem incredibly silent about this issue of extending unemployment benefits," MSNBC's liberal anchor Keith Olberman said with a suspicious tone last week.
Did Olberman really just discover that it's politically beneficial for the Democrats to have unemployment benefits to flog the Republicans with? It fits perfectly with their emerging message for the fall: Republicans don't care about you -- they're the party of BP and big banks, and they ran amok during their leadership and gave us a catastrophic recession and the worst oil spill ever.
And to cap it all off, West Virgina Democratic Governor Joe Manchin, who will appoint the successor to the late Sen. Robert Byrd and thus could help put Democrats over the top, seems more interested in his own political future. Manchin has made it clear that he wants Byrd's seat, but he has said he won't appoint himself. It's unclear just when he will appoint an interim replacement, which would help Democrats get over the 60-vote hurdle.
But it's unclear whether Democrats -- in their heart of hearts -- see more political benefit in passing the bill, or having Republicans to continue to block it. And while both parties battle for political points, more and more jobless Americans are losing their financial lifeline.
As Jobless Americans Go Broke, Politicians Care More About Politics