Chuck Grassley’s Recursive Loops of Bipartisanship

Chuck Grassley (R-IA)

Chuck Grassley (R-IA)

E.J. Dionne’s column urging Barack Obama to get more active in the health care debate contains this interesting nugget:

I’m told that Grassley, under immense pressure from Republican colleagues not to deal at all, has informed Baucus that he cannot sign on to a bill if it is supported by only one other Republican, the sensible Olympia Snowe of Maine. Grassley needs more cover from more conservative colleagues.

We see here some of the oddities of attempts at bipartisanship for its own sake. As I’ve observed previously, under ordinary conditions the Senate’s post-1990 rule that you need a 60 vote supermajority to move legislation (with an exception for tax cuts for the wealthy) just amounts to a rule that only bipartisan bills can pass the Senate. But the Republican Party chose in several instances to run hardline conservative candidates in states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New Mexico, etc. that went for Barack Obama. They then chose to mount a primary campaign against an incumbent moderate Senator from Pennsylvania, inspiring him to switch parties. Consequently—and unusually—there will be 60 Democratic Senators when Al Franken is seated.

I think this to some extent changes the game as far as bipartisanship is concerned. By definition any bill that 60 Senators vote for has broad legislative support, which one assumes is the virtue of a bipartisan bill. And yet despite that fact, a new consensus is emerging that for a bill to be “really” bipartisan, it’s not good enough to acquire the vote of the 41st-most-conservative Senator (Ben Nelson) or even the 40th- and 39th-most-conservative Senators (Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe). You also need an additional even more conservative Senator. And now we have Chuck Grassley signaling that his commitment to this weird principle is so strong that he would vote against a bill of which he otherwise approves unless a Senator who even more conservative than Grassley agrees to vote for it.

But what’s the point of this? Who does this help? The way bipartisan bills happen is that you forge a compromise with the moderate members of the other party. As it happens, there are only two moderate Republicans in the Senate. But that should be understood as the GOP’s problem, not the Democrats’ problem. If the GOP ran more moderate nominees, there might be more Republican Senators and then, as a matter of course, bipartisan legislation would require a broader coalition.