Leadership Is Darn Hard! | NBC New York

Leadership Is Darn Hard!

Sneaky ways trip up the Democrats own agenda



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    Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is one more elected Democrat irritated by what was snuck into a big spending bill -- easing the Cuban embargo. Menendez refused to let the $410 spending bill go through to final passage. (Photo by Steven Henry/Getty Images)

    Working wasn't supposed to be this hard, dagnabit!!

    For the second time in three days,there's a report on the struggle that Democratic leaders are having getting the $410 billion omnibus spending bill passed. This time, they are finding opposition to their plans coming from an unusual place -- from other Democrats in Congress. Tuesday, The Washington Post reports:  

    Democrats rejected four GOP amendments to the omnibus spending bill last night, and they will face more today. The additional amendments are the price that Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) was forced to pay Thursday night after he sought to bring an end to debate on the bill and came up one vote short. Several Republicans whose support Reid had anticipated did not deliver, but the most costly defection was that of Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), a member of the Democratic leadership, in protest of a little-noticed Cuba provision that would ease U.S. rules on travel and imports to the communist-led island.

    The Menendez rebellion was a jolt of political reality for Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Obama, signaling that the solidarity of the stimulus debate is fading as Democratic lawmakers are starting to read the fine print of the bills they will wrestle with in the coming weeks and months, and not always liking what they see.


    Menendez knew that his hard-line approach to Cuba was a minority view within his party, and that it was at odds with Obama's approach. But he did not expect to discover a significant policy change embedded in the text on an appropriations bill. His policy aides came across the language when the legislation was posted on a congressional Web site.

    There are two big problems that the Democrats are confronting. One is institutional -- and can't be fixed.  The other is political prerogative and Pelosi and Reid can fix it if they so choose.

    More than a decade ago, I worked on Capitol Hill for the then-GOP majority. While both the House and the Senate tipped into Republican hands during the 1994 election, all the energy of what was called the "Republican revolution" resided in the House. It was members of the lower chamber that had run on the Contract With America -- a document that gave a unifying philosophy and focus to the elected members. Thus, inevitably, House members and staff would become aghast when the legislation would end up in the Senate and either get watered down or ignored completely. Eventually, the Senate became cynically known as the "elephants' graveyard" -- where good Republican legislation went to die.

    In fact, it was a reflection of how the Founding Fathers wanted the system to work. "Hot" legislation that started in the House inevitably was "cooled" by the Senate -- or put completely on ice. So, these natural tensions between the two chambers are the way it's supposed to be. Even though Democrats are running all Congress now, the same principle holds.

    That said, there's a bit more going on. Menendez found out exactly what some Republicans discovered during the stimulus package debate: The government-by-crisis method that controls DC right now is giving license to bill-writers in both the House and the Senate to slip language into legislation that is barely getting noticed. Sometimes, it's caught and stripped out early -- like the condoms/family planning stuff that was in the stimulus package. Sometimes, it's caught and fought over -- like the DC vouchers in this same supplemental spending bill. And sometimes, a member like Menendez -- who is conventionally liberal and a loyal Democrat on just about every major issue except on Cuba -- catches something that is a spit-in-the-face to him and part of his loyal constituency (New Jersey has likely the largest Cuban expat community outside of Miami). And he raises bloody heck over it.

    The problem isn't with Menendez or the system: The problem is that the Democratic leadership can't be  happy with the fact that they have huge majorities in both the House and Senate; that's not enough. Instead, they have to try and game the system even more.  They try to slip in extraneous legislation that should be debated out in the open. They've been partly successful. But when their sneaky ways are brought to light, sometimes the backlash can bite them on the behind. Even from their own members. Yes, the bill was finally passed in the Senate Tuesday afternoon, but it could have been accomplished in a much smoother fashion.

    Maybe basic openness might be a better approach?

    Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.