Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Last Call: Max Baucus Returns (Home)

Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus is joining the list of Dems retiring from the Senate next year, in yet another ominous sign for Team Blue to hold on.

At times infuriating his Democratic colleagues, Baucus worked with Republicans to co-write the Bush-era tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug plan, but he also served as the lead defender against George W. Bush’s 2005 effort to partially privatize Social Security and played a critical role in writing President Obama’s national health-care plan.

From conservative-leaning Montana, Baucus has voted against Democratic initiatives on some social issues, most recently last week’s effort to create an expanded background check system for gun purchases.

Despite Obama’s double-digit defeat in Montana, Democrats intend to vigorously defend the seat. The leading Democratic candidate is former governor Schweitzer, a popular figure who at times has feuded with Baucus over local political issues in the Big Sky state. In February, Schweitzer hinted at a potential run in a Facebook post.

The Baucus retirement also could have dramatic policy ramifications. No longer bounded by his own 2014 re-election, Baucus can now push for comprehensive tax reform without concerns about the political ramifications, his allies say.

He and Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the term-limited chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, could jump-start tax reform with both men looking toward their legislative legacy rather than their political fallout within their respective caucuses.

At least Baucus is passing the baton early enough for Schweitzer to make a clean run, but we'll see if the popular former Governor is even going to take a crack at it.  If he passes, the seat will almost certainly go to the GOP.

Having said that, Schweitzer would be better than Baucus on voting with progressive, surely.  We'll see how it shakes out.

Nate's Numbers On The Gun Vote

I said last week that Senate Republicans would pay no price in 2014 for voting adown the Manchin-Toomey compromise legislation on gun violence, and today Nate Silver's numbers back up that argument.

Did the senators who voted against a proposal last week to expand background checks on gun buyers take an electoral risk?

At first glance, it would seem that they did. Background checks are broadly popular with the public. Overwhelming majorities of 80 to 90 percent of the public say they favor background checks when guns are purchased at gun shows, at gun shops or online. Support for background checks drops when guns are bought through informal channels, or gifts from family members — but the amendment that the Senate voted upon last week, sponsored by the Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, would have exempted most of these cases.

And yet, the Senate did not behave as though this was a piece of legislation favored by 80 percent or more of the public. The analysis that we posted last week suggested that, if anything, senators who are up for re-election in 2014 were less likely to vote for the bill.

Which is exactly what happened.  The gun bill came up five votes short, forcing Reid to vote against  it procedurally.  Nate summarizes:

My view, in other words, is that polls showing 90 percent support for background checks will tend to overstate how well the Democrats’ position might play out before the electorate in practice, though public opinion was on their side on this vote.

Moreover, few of the Republican senators who are up for re-election in 2014 are vulnerable for any reason. Only one, Susan Collins of Maine, comes from a state that Barack Obama carried, and she voted for Mr. Manchin’s bill.

In fact, the safety of the Senate Republicans may have enabled them to vote against the amendment, at least in part, for a tactical reason: to protect their colleagues in the House. This is not to suggest that Republicans are likely to lose the House — but there are 17 House Republicans in districts carried by President Obama last year. By preventing the background-check bill from securing the 60 votes necessary to pass the Senate, the Republicans may have prevented their House counterparts from having to take a tough vote.

Thus, Democrats are not in much of a position to capitalize on the vote from the standpoint of individual seats in Congress in 2014. To the extent that the issue plays favorably for Democrats in 2014, it is likely to be for symbolic reasons — because they are able to persuade voters that it reflects a Republican Party that is outside the mainstream.

Which is what I said last week, and in the weeks before.  Nate's analysis is worth reading completely as his numbers show pretty convincingly that no Senate Republicans are going to suffer from this next year.  The real issue was sparing House Republicans from going on record against it, and the Senate GOP played it perfectly.

Look for them to do the same on immigration reform.

Count on it.

Selling Out Marco Rubio

TPM's Benjy Sarlin argues that Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio really is trying to honestly sell immigration reform to his colleagues as a way for the Republicans to move forward (and for Rubio to get major national cred toward the 2016 race as a result.)  The problem of course is two-fold:  Rubio's chief Senate GOP rival is Rand Paul, and the Boston bombings have given him and other Tea Party conservatives the excuse to hang Rubio and his plan out to dry.

Rubio really is a one-man conservative outreach program when it comes to this bill. His ties to the tea party base are so deep that reformers were constantly worried he’d abandon negotiations rather than risk an inevitable backlash by signing onto a compromise. Rubio made light of the dynamic at a press conference introducing the legislation on Thursday when he took the podium, said “Actually, I changed my mind,” and pretended to walk off.

It’s created tension at times with more progressive reformers, but Rubio’s general strategy has been to acknowledge conservative complaints about the bill even while he refuses to back off his support. After reform skeptics in the Senate complained the process was moving too fast, for example, he fought to make sure there were multiple hearings on the bill. He’s spent much of the week appearing on conservative talk radio shows, many of which are hosted by skeptics — even leading opponents — of reform. And his office launched a website devoted entirely to knocking down “myths” about immigration reform, including a false claim this week on conservative blogs that the bill would give free “amnesty phones” to undocumented immigrants.

“It’s tragic that a nation of immigrants remains divided on immigration,” Rubio said at the presser.

None of the other “Gang of 8” Republicans have particularly strong followings on the populist right, so Rubio is really the only option when it comes to this kind of outreach. He’ll face another big test this month containing the fallout from the Boston bombing, where he’s already trying to ease Republican concerns about the bill’s national security implications. 

The 2-ton elephant in the room is of course the fact that tea party Republicans don't want immigration reform, they want to leverage continuing fear and scapegoating of Latinos and other minority groups to increase the percentage of the white vote that the GOP gets at the expense of the Democrats.  The Boston bombings present the perfect opportunity for them to do just that, and to permanently damage Marco Rubio among GOP primary voters heading forward.

Nobody's more excited to play that card than Rand Paul, as I pointed out yesterday.  I predict more than ever that Republicans will use Boston as political cover to end immigration reform, and Marco Rubio will be left holding the bag.  It won't end his career probably, but the 2016 nominee for the GOP will be somebody who went on record against the plan.

Count on it.


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