Michael Gerson: Obama's overreach

Published: December 4, 2012
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If Obama really wants long-term fiscal stability that will reassure markets and encourage investment and growth, he needs the leverage of Republicans pushing for entitlement reform within budget negotiations. If he merely wants to fund unsustainable federal commitments for a few more years through higher taxes on the wealthy, he will try to steamroll Republicans on rates. Right now, he seems to be taking the latter course.

A second possible overreach concerns Majority Leader Harry Reid's threat — now endorsed by the White House — to change the rules for Senate filibusters. GOP senators already feel picked upon by Reid's practice of “filling the amendment tree,” making it impossible for them to introduce amendments to legislation. If Reid kicks off the new session in January by limiting the historical privileges of the minority — because the minority currently happens to be Republican — it will provoke a furious revolt. To get his rule change on filibusters, Reid would need to demonstrate that any Senate rule could be changed by a simple majority. This would make the Senate a smaller, more pompous version of the House, where the majority rewrites the rules every two years and the minority consequently counts for little.

At least in the short term, Reid would achieve little more than the humiliation of Republicans. An empowered Senate Democratic majority could pass 1,000 bills that would still languish in the Republican House. But Reid would succeed in provoking a constitutional crisis in the middle of a complex, continuing budget negotiation.

Either of these heavy-handed strategies — the budget overreach or the attack on the filibuster — could backfire. Taken together, they might light Obama's inaugural festivities in a glow of burning bridges. America has just ended a long, exhausting, divisive, dispiriting campaign, from which the president has apparently drawn this lesson: We need more of it.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

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