Republicans are using the filibuster not only to delay legislation they genuinely oppose, but as part of a broader strategy to stall Democrats on other initiatives. Last fall, GOP leaders forced Democrats to overcome a pair of filibusters to extend unemployment benefits. "There was no opposition to the bill," observed Sen. Bayh, who noted that the measure passed by a margin of 98-0. "But some senators saw political advantage in drawing out debate, thus preventing the Senate from addressing other pressing matters."
The GOP has also used parliamentary chicanery to prevent Obama from filling key roles in his administration. Under Senate rules, a single senator can anonymously block a vote on a White House nominee by using what's known as a "hold." "It's a policy that is easily abused," says former Bush adviser David Frum — and Republicans have proved themselves eager to abuse it, even at the expense of national security. After the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina continued to block a vote on the chief of the Transportation Security Administration because he didn't like the nominee's pro-union politics. In February, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama placed a blanket hold on more than 70 nominees — including three high-level Pentagon officials — in a stunt designed to steer more military pork projects to his state. The GOP's willingness to gum up the works is unprecedented: While Bush ended his first year with just 70 appointees awaiting confirmation, more than 200 of Obama's nominees are still in Senate limbo.
By voting en masse against the president's initiatives, Republicans now have the luxury of casting everything as Obama's fault — even if it requires distorting the president's record. Democrats, they argue, are hurting average Americans. "The economy is worse for having done the stimulus," says Norquist. "It's not that it helped a little bit. It didn't help at all!" The GOP, he insists, can make the same argument on health care: "There's nothing in the health care bill that's any good at all. It's all taxes and transfers of income. There's nothing in there that reduces the costs of health care for anybody."
In reality, both assertions are demonstrably wrong. The stimulus has created 2 million jobs in its first year, according to the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office, and the Democratic health care plan will save taxpayers $104 billion over 10 years. But Republicans aren't letting the reality-based virtues of Obama's initiatives stand in their way. To distract voters, they have unleashed an all-out campaign to demonize the president's agenda. Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, played a lead role in instigating the Tea Partiers — a nearly all-white movement that has cast the president as a socialist, Kenyan-born tyrant intent on bankrupting America and euthanizing the elderly. The Tea Party's most extreme rhetoric has often been fanned by top Republicans in both the House and Senate. Last July, long before Sarah Palin coined the phrase "death panels," Boehner warned that Obama's health care plan would lead America "down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia." Grassley, one of the chief GOP negotiators on the bill, claimed that under "government-run health care" the ailing Ted Kennedy would have been denied care for his brain tumor by federal bean counters who would "pull the tubes." The rhetoric was as hypocritical as it was dishonest: Both Boehner and Grassley had previously voted to provide government-funded, end-of-life counseling for terminal patients as part of the GOP's Medicare expansion in 2003.
The Republicans' grotesque distortions of Obama's record have become a matter of dogma for the GOP's new grass-roots base. A recent poll found that only two percent of Tea Partiers are aware that the president enacted the largest middle-class tax cut in history. A staggering 44 percent, by contrast, believe that Obama has increased their taxes — and only 16 percent blame the current economic catastrophe on Bush, who ran up record deficits by slashing taxes for the wealthy.
The Tea Party's fight-the-power theatrics have also helped Republicans obscure the fact that the few alternatives they have bothered to offer to President Obama's policies are a repeat of the Bush-league economics that cater to Wall Street banks and hedge-fund billionaires. The GOP attacked Democrats for the size of the stimulus, for example, arguing that anything the government did be "timely, temporary and targeted." But the Republican alternative — a Rovian package of permanent tax cuts for big corporations and the wealthiest Americans — carried a 10-year price tag of more than $3 trillion. And the GOP alternative to health care — a mix of deregulation and health-savings accounts — would leave the share of Americans without insurance unchanged at 17 percent.
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