No Time for Small Deeds

The defection of Sen. Jim Jeffords came not a moment too soon, even if the Vermonter stayed Republican long enough to ensure passage of George W. Bush's trillion-dollar tax break for the least needy.

It took a lot of courage, that rare commodity on Capitol Hill, for Jeffords to quit the Republicans, even though they had treated him badly when he was among the most liberal of the their number. But when he joined the Democratic caucus (albeit as an independent), it was a sweet reversal of fortunes for the Rs who had usurped the public's will and a boon for the Ds who had been cheated out of the White House. Tom Daschle, by the slimmest of margins, assumed the title of Senate Majority Leader from Trent Lott while Jesse Helms, Phil Gramm, Orrin Hatch, Bob Smith and the other mossback Rs had to turn over their committee gavels. But just rearranging the furniture won't impress voters. The new Democratic chairmen, with new subpoena powers, can and should call the Bush administration to task, and at this writing they already were looking into rising energy prices, election reform and Medicare prescription drug benefits.

Trent Lott and other Republican ideologues at first tried to undermine the Democrats' new authority, claiming that Jeffords had mounted a "coup of one" and that the Ds lacked a mandate. Then it was noted that the Rs had been the nominal majority in the Senate for the first four months only because George W. Bush had been awarded the White House by the Supreme Court on a disputed count in Florida, when he still trailed Al Gore by half a million popular votes. So Dick Cheney was the tie-breaking vote in the deadlocked Senate.

Republicans threatened to filibuster the reorganization of the Senate if Democrats did not agree to give Bush's judicial nominees a pass in the Judiciary Committee, but that threat was hollow: Democrats aren't going to get any progressive bills through the right-wing-controlled House this year anyway, so gridlock in the Senate hurts the White House more than it hurts the Democrats. But if the Ds stand their ground in the Senate, the tax bill could be the last bad bill that gets through that chamber.

Unfortunately, Daschle announced he planned to move the bankruptcy deform bill to a conference committee to haggle over differences with the House version. Lobbyists for banks and credit card companies have been demanding the bill, which would end the ability of middle-income debtors to wipe out credit card debts, medical bills or other unsecured debts by filing for bankruptcy. The best hope for consumers is an impasse between House Republicans and Senate Democrats over the Senate version's $125,000 cap on home equity that can be shielded from creditors. That would end an unlimited exemption that now exists in several states, including Texas, which Republican leaders don't want to accept. Another Senate provision that House Rs want to strip out would end the ability of abortion protesters to escape legal judgments resulting from clinic violence by filing for bankruptcy.

Still, Democrats are well-positioned to take the initiative in the Senate. With Tom Harkin of Iowa taking over Agriculture from Richard Lugar, there is a chance for a discussion of how we might save family farms from the predation of agribusiness. Robert Byrd's ascension at Appropriations means more pork for West Virginia instead of Ted Stevens' Alaska, but Byrd also will vote with the liberals more often than not. Carl Levin's Armed Services Committee will be much more skeptical of Pentagon boondoggles such as missile defense than John Warner's. Under Paul Sarbanes, with a pro-labor and pro-consumer record (and opposition to bankruptcy deform) maybe the Banking Committee should no longer be the handmaiden of the financial industry as it was under Gramm. Jeff Bingaman has signaled an interest in hearings into price gouging as Energy chair. Jim Jeffords not only takes over Environment from Smith; he actually cares about the environment. Fellow Vermonter Patrick Leahy will be in a position to demand moderate judicial nominees at Judiciary, where Hatch would have OK'd the most extreme rightwingers Bush could come up with. Max Baucus, taking over Finance, already plans hearings on a prescription drug benefit. Joseph Biden replaces the Foreign Relations Helms-man. Joseph Lieberman can cause headaches for the Bush administration at Governmental Affairs, and if Jeffords was a middling decent chair of Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, new chair Ted Kennedy is The Man who has long advocated universal health care.

And soft-spoken Daschle has done a good job leading the fractious Democrats. As senator from South Dakota, he is well-versed on rural as well as urban affairs and the challenges faced by health providers. Most importantly, he is open to progressive populism.

This is no time for small deeds and modest goals for Democrats. They need to show that they once again are worthy of the people's support. If Democrats show the will, progressive populists can help Kennedy get the votes to pass a universal health care bill, if not after the 2002 elections (since it would still require a veto override), then perhaps in 2005.

When Democrats approved Bill Clinton's tax increase in 1993, Republicans predicted that it would lead to a recession. Instead, it eliminated the record budget deficits of the Reagan-Bush I era and led to eight years of economic growth, the longest such streak in the nation's history. Now, with the prospect of budget surpluses as we head into the 21st century, instead of investing in universal health care, better schools and providing for the welfare of the 5% of the population that the Federal Reserve requires to remain jobless, the Republicans, with no popular mandate but helped by a few quisling Democrats, passed a tax cut that will cost the Treasury more than $1.35 trillion over the next decade.

The best thing that can be said of the tax cut -- other than the one-time rebate of up to $600 for couples, which progressive Democrats managed to insert -- is that the cuts expire in 10 years, and many of the worst cuts don't take effect for several years.

That gives progressives time to rebuild a coalition that could enact an agenda of universal health care, more spending to close the gap between schools in low-income and wealthy communities and programs to ensure that working people are able to lift their families out of poverty.

Senate Democrats should give Bush a choice: Deal with them as equals, or be a lame duck. Bush has paid some lip service to moderate Republicans, and he even invited John McCain to the White House for chicken fried steak. But a few days later, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said Bush would veto the bipartisan HMO reform bill drawn up by McCain and Ted Kennedy. The bill would let patients sue health plans for denial of treatment and seek as much as $5 million in damages. Bush vetoed a similar bill in Texas before Republican legislators and his Democratic mentor, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, explained to Dubya that he needed to let that one pass. Bush then embraced the Texas bill in last year's campaign as proof that he was sensitive to the needs of people.

HMO reform would be a good start, but even that half-measure will be a tough sell to get past these Republican skinflints, and it won't help the 44 million or so working poor who can't afford health care now. Universal health care for every American should be our main goal.

Timothy McVeigh is dead and undoubtedly there will be a move to make him a martyr to the militia movement which, ironically, he left crippled in addition to the 168 victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. He's no martyr here, just a deluded fanatic who thought he would ignite a revolution with his fertilizer bomb. But his atrocity only made Americans forget the atrocity in Waco against which he was rebelling. (The government only compounded the atrocity by killing him, but that's another story.) The solution to bad government, dear friends, is to get good people to run for election and then get your friends out to vote. Then, of course, see to it that your vote is counted. But if Mexico can clean up its elections, surely there is hope for the USA. -- JMC

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