Guest: Congressional historian and author Norman Ornstein of AEI on why he believes Dems will both reform the filibuster and pass a transformative Build Back Better budget reconciliation package...
By Brad Friedman on 9/22/2021, 6:23pm PT  

On today's BradCast: What we are witnessing right now in Washington D.C. is not just an exercise in how the sausage gets made...or doesn't. While it is that, it is also an extraordinarily perilous moment for the survival of the republic, as Democrats try to step up, in order to face down an insurrectionist GOP seemingly hell bent on taking the nation and the world down with them. Fortunately, our guest today --- who knows this landscape as well as anyone in the nation --- seems optimistic, despite the fraught dangers that lie ahead. [Audio link to full show is posted below this summary.]

The nightmare moment for Joe Biden, the Democrats and the nation, includes a Congressional Republican Party willing to default on the, until now, iron-clad good faith and credit of the U.S. economy, by refusing to vote to raise the ridiculous "debt ceiling" in order to borrow the money needed to pay for all the stuff that we (including Republicans!) have already committed to paying for, including trillions spent or given away during the Trump years.

It also includes several mighty internecine battles inside the Congressional Democratic caucus itself, as the so-called "moderate" and progressive wings of the big tent party attempt to navigate through landmines over the next several days and weeks to come to an agreement on Joe Biden's proposed $3.5 trillion Build Back Better social safety net programs (which, in addition to the expansion of health and child care, also includes a laundry list of long-overdue programs, such as our first major attempt to take on our climate emergency) and the critical Freedom to Vote Act, a sweeping election reform package to try and counter the massive voter suppression and election subversion efforts being adopted by GOP-controlled states in advance of 2022.

To pass the latter, Democrats will almost certainly need to reform the filibuster in some way, to allow passage with a simple majority of Senators. Sadly, there do not appear to be any Republicans left in Congress who are willing to support the right to vote and fair elections. These problems seem insurmountable for the moment, even as we've been fairly bullish on the Dems' ultimate ability to overcome the many hurdles they currently face.

Similarly bullish, it seems, is NORMAN ORNSTEIN [pictured above], longtime Congressional historian and political science PhD, who has spent the bulk of the last four decades studying politics, elections, and the US Congress at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, where he is now a senior fellow emeritus. He is also a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic and author of a host of books, including his latest, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported, with E. J. Dionne and Thomas E. Mann.

Last week, Ornstein and Norman Eisen, of the left-leaning Brookings Institution, published a Washington Post op-ed headlined "Seven reasons to think Senate Democrats will actually change the filibuster". It's based on a paper they published at the same time at Brookings, along with Mel Barnes and Jeffrey A. Mandell, titled "Filibuster reform is coming --- here's how".

Both pieces are surprisingly optimistic when it comes to what will have to happen --- and how West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema will have to play along --- in order to reform the filibuster to adopt the Freedom to Vote Act, before that freedom is all but foreclosed by GOP voter suppression and election subversion in next year's mid-terms and 2024's Presidential race.

"We're seeing more and more intense understanding on the part of Democrats in the Senate that the road to accomplishing significant goals, in a time frame that's short for Democrats, has to require some change in their rules," Ornstein tells me, explaining why he believes that even Manchin and Sinema will come around to understanding the existential necessity of countering "the over-the-top actions by --- it's not a party anymore --- the Republican cult, to try not just to obstruct votes and to suppress votes, but to intimidate election workers and overturn legitimate results."

He walks us through why he believes that both of those two currently obstructionist Democratic Senators will come around in the end, on both filibuster reform and the Dems' budget reconciliation bill, which can be adopted with a simple majority vote. "Joe Manchin, throughout his career, has been a transactional politician. You could do a bill that's, say, $2.2 or $2.5 trillion, that actually preserves all of your core priorities" by simply trimming the number of years those proposals will be in effect. And, he argues, it can be done "if not being revenue neutral," then in a way that "is a pretty trivial amount as a share of our Gross Domestic Product."

In the end, he believes Manchin will come along, and Sinema along with him. "I think it's dicey, but I also think it's doable," Ornstein argues.

Among other key points of our conversation today, we discuss how Nancy Pelosi can hold the vote on the smaller, bipartisan, $1.5 trillion infrastructure package that Democratic House "moderates" are demanding next week, but not send the bill to the President's desk until the larger reconciliation package supported by progressives is adopted in both chambers; and how (and if) Democrats will be able to overcome objections by the Senate Parliamentarian to include things like immigration reform in a budget reconciliation package, "awkwardly thrown in". All necessary, says Ornstein, "because of the goddamn filibuster! Because there's no other way to get it done with 50 votes. So you create this ungainly hodgepodge of things as a way to try to circumvent the rules, and the better way to deal with it is to change the damn rules!"

If these things don't happen, he warns, if Democrats fail to successfully navigate the many minefields to adopt both election reform and Biden's Build Back Better Agenda, we are in "deep, deep, deep trouble," he says. "I think we're done for, frankly, if they can't do both of these things."

Of course, in the next few days, we'll also have to somehow get over the debt ceiling cliff that Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans are threatening to push the nation over. On that, Ornstein is less sanguine. "I'm actually more concerned about that, because we have a group of Republicans like [Governors] Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, Kristi Noem and Tate Reeves, and so many others who are willing to let hundreds of thousands of people die [from COVID] for their own political purposes. Can I believe that Mitch McConnell and his colleagues would let the nation go into default and cause the economy to go into huge upheaval? Sadly, yes."

There is also at least one extra treat in my interview with Ornstein today, however, for those who may remember the hilarious and shockingly prescient 1998 satirical novel by Al Franken, written prior to his career as a U.S. Senator, entitled Why Not Me?: The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency. Ornstein actually "co-stars" in the book as Franken's unlikely Campaign Manager before becoming his Presidential Chief of Staff. I'll not give any more of the book away, since I suspect it's still an hilarious read. But today, Ornstein shares the backstory of how that book came about, and how much more prescient it actually turned out to be than even I remembered!...

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