Setting the Record Straight

July 10, 2008

Our Medicare Missread

Kennedy’s Trip Unnecessary? No!

We won’t change this post beyond the headlines, so you can see how we blew it. Normally, congressional members of the party in the White House, usually support the president on a veto even if they voted for the original bill. The override votes in both houses were greater than the original votes, signalling that Bush should go home now to Crawford and leave us alone for the rest of his term.

          It seemed like a good idea at the time, when Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., interrupted his recovery and treatment for a probably fatal brain tumor to fly to Washington, D.C., to cast a deciding Medicare vote.
          In the long run, Kennedy and the Democrats are destined to lose on the issue, even though the vote result, 69-30 and quickly labeled “veto-proof,” makes it look like a winner for the opposing party. It looks like a winner, that is, if you don’t pay attention to how Congress works.
          The issue at stake was payment for physicians who treat Medicare patients, with the parties split on where to cut reimbursements. It is a classic Republican vs. Democrat policy disagreement, whether federal money should be filtered through private industry.
          As they have been doing for decades when they are in the minority, and especially as the current one-vote minority, Republicans threatened a filibuster against the bill. Filibusters are never actually held these days, but the mere threat of one is enough to block a bill from being brought up for a yes-or-not vote.
          To allow that up-or-down vote to take place, at least 60 senators must vote “aye.” Kennedy could not make it to Washington a few weeks ago, three weeks after his surgery, and the “cloture” vote taken then fell one short. To avoid a repeat of that situation, he made the trip and sure enough, Kennedy gave Democrats the 60th vote they needed, nine of the votes coming from Republican senators who oppose the Bush administration on the issue.
          Knowing the vote was enough to allow an up-or-down vote, nine Republicans switched their votes to aye, four of them facing re-election this year, thus the overwhelming 69-30 vote (John McCain was the lone absentee).
          That lopsided total led most news outlets to label the vote “veto-proof” because a move to override a veto requires two-thirds of those present and voting in each house, 67 in the Senate if all senators vote. But was the vote veto-proof?
         Veteran congressional watchers know members often vote differently when an issue is at stake than when a vote to side with the incumbent president of their party is at stake.
         Bush has vowed to veto the bill despite the vote. The nine who switched their vote presumably did so because it would look like a good vote to their constituents, even though they actually oppose the measure. Many of the nine Republicans who originally voted with the majority also may have felt themselves in the same position.
         The question now is whether Democrats can keep at least 16 of the 18 Republicans on their side during an override vote. Just three need to switch to support their president, and among the nine switchers, there mostly likely are more than three who will note vote against their own president on principle. And that does not include those whose arms about to be twisted by administration operatives.




July 4, 2008

Senator Racist Bites the Dust

Shed No Tears For Senator No 

           We shed no tears here at the news Jesse Helms has died. We had no choice but to cover the antics of this born, raised and died racist throughout his 30 years in the Senate.

            For his personal legacy, you have to go abroad to The Guardian for the best obituary.

            But Helms also used and twisted the parliamentary system of the Senate not for the good of the country, but to win with his own narrow, mean, minority view of how the country should be run, to suit the view of him and his fellow racists.

            The Helms legacy lives on in the Senate today as the minority uses the system he helped bring about to block the current one-vote majority from getting anything done, then putting out press releases and talking on TV about how the Democrats don’t do anything.

            Helms didn’t invent use of the filibuster as an effective tool to block legislation you don’t like but don’t have enough support to defeat by voting. But his twisted use of it led to the situation we have today.

            You’ve heard about that three-fifths vote (60) the Senate needs to take up any piece of controversial legislation.

            That replaced the filibuster in which a senator is recognized to speak and refuses to yield the floor, as is his right. But to keep the floor, as you’ve no doubt seen in many old films, the senator must keep talking and not sit down, or he can yield to a supporter for comment without yielding control of the floor.

            The filibuster was used to great effect by Helms’s predecessors, the racists senators who fought against the Civil Rights Act and similar groundbreaking and long-overdue legislation in the 1960s.

            The only way the Senate can shut off the filibuster is, after a set number of days, to file a cloture petition and after a certain amount of time, take a vote, with three-fifths of the full Senate needed to stop the filibuster.

            Helms used the filibuster so much to obstruct Senate proceedings, the mere mention he would stage one would lead the Senate majority leader to suspend the issue on the floor and turn to some other matter so the body could carry on with its business of governing.

            Thus, we no longer have filibusters, but the Senate must still have that three-fifths vote to override obstructionists and get on with the business at hand. And that is why a closely divided Senate such as the one we have now is unable to do much. Thanks a lot, Jesse.



May 21, 2008


Filed under: news,politics — straightrecord @ 3:40 am
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A Reporter’s View:

Ted Kennedy: Maturation of a Senator

         The news that Ted Kennedy has a fatal malignant brain tumor is about to lead to a flood of eulogies about the man. He has been a Massachusetts senator since 1962. While none of the contributors to this site ( has covered Washington, much less Congress, quite that long, many of our reporting careers overlap his career.
          Here are some personal notes from one of us. 
          I have been concerned about Kennedy’s health for many years. He has been overweight to the point of obesity for more than a decade and barely able to take a breath.
          Quite often, Kennedy was one of several senators participating in a news conference about one thing or another. Invariably, he would take his turn at the lectern and then practically waddle over to the nearest seat. That usually meant he took a seat behind reporters sitting in the front row and several times that put him beside me. He would fall into the seat with a powerful sigh. He may not have remembered my name, but he recognized me as a regular of many decades, so he’d give me a friendly poke on the leg and as much of a smile he could muster between wheezes. My instinct was to nod and leave him alone as he caught his breath, but I usually wondered if he would survive the day.
          Reporters do form personal opinions about the people they cover. Readers never know what are the opinions of good reporters, because those opinions are never reflected in the news story. But we do judge people according to many criteria.
          In the early 70s, most of us correctly judged Kennedy as a light-weight. He gave little effort to being informed on the issues and relied heavily on his staff. His staff usually was the best in Congress because the Kennedy name attracted some of the best legislative and issue practitioners. Even then, Kennedy was a liberal, as is the rest of the Kennedy clan, yes even the wife of California’s celebrity governor.
          But, except for giving speeches, Kennedy was not good at his job. As reporters seeking information, we seek out the person who knows the answers and we hope that is the person in charge, the person holding the office. In Kennedy’s case in those years, it was not he, it as a staffer.
          Sitting down for a one-on-one interview with Kennedy or trying to get some substantive comments from him in a hallway or on the run used to be almost fruitless, except to get a quote from the man himself to put in the story. Sitting in his office, he would be surrounded by staffers whom he depended on to answer the questions put to him. Rarely would any of us even try to hold an in-depth discussion directly with him on the issues. He did not have a grasp of details. He was shallow.
          He was elected majority whip of the Senate in 1969 (the same year as the Chappaquiddick incident that will dog him to his grave, and he predictably was a failure at the job. The whip job requires a great deal of effort, making sure members of your party not only know how the majority leader wants them to vote, but knowing if the majority has the votes, including any from the minority, to pass an amendment of legislation. He clearly was not up to the job and was kicked out of it two years later.
          But over the years, we saw him mature and grow into the job. As he moved from subcommittee to committee chairmanships, he became more serious about the job as senator. He appeared to change after the fateful interview with Roger Mudd of CBS when he finally succumbed and entered the race for the Democratic nomination for president in 1979.
          Mudd, one of the few television network reporters who actually worked at the journalistic part of his job, was a jovial sort and not the type to ask a “gotcha question.” When he asked Kennedy in a one-on-one special interview why he wanted to be president, it was a softball question to get the interview started and set the stage for substantive questions to follow. Most of us begin an interview that way to soften up the interviewee. The toughest questions are saved until the end of the interview, in case the interviewee turns hostile and refuses to cooperate further.
          Other than running for president just because he was a Kennedy and could do so seriously, Ted Kennedy had no clue why he wanted to be president and stumbled through his answer, looking a lot like the current president.
          Whereas these days looking like a fool in an interview does not rule you out as a president, in those days it still did. His candidacy was over as quickly as it began. The same year, Kennedy became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee simply because the job went, and still does, to the person who has been on the committee the longest.
          It is not clear whether the shock of coming off shallow in the pres- idential campaign or the huge responsibility in becoming chairman of what was then an almost-critical committee of Congress did the job, but Kennedy began to become a knowledgeable member of the Senate, well-versed in the issues before him and someone a reporter could question without having to rely on the senator’s staffers for informative answers.
          Sadly, that maturity began nearly two decades after he was first elected, but his longevity in the office has allowed him to emerge not only as one of the most liberal members of Congress, but one who can safely dare to claim the title “liberal.” Lately, it seems the more his fel- low liberals hide behind other labels and waffle on the issues, the more strident he becomes in speaking out for the cause.
          As the mantle of “statesman” is rarely worn in Congress these days, after Kennedy so will those strong enough to admit to being “liberal” be rare.



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