WASHINGTON — Republicans trying to slow action on the Democrats' health care plan are using the same tactics as the lawmakers who once tried to block progress on civil rights and women's rights, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday.
"History is repeating itself before our eyes," the Nevada Democrat said as he opened the day's debate on health care.
While congressional analysts thought that comparing GOP strategists to the senators who tried to thwart historic civil rights movements was misplaced, they agreed with Reid that the Republican effort to slow the health care bill is well-rooted in U.S. Senate history.
The GOP today controls 40 of the Senate's 100 seats, which means that under Senate rules, the party needs only one more vote to keep blocking legislation indefinitely.
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"It happens all the time," said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. "Minorities may often be on the wrong side of history, but they often go down swinging."
The Senate wasn't designed to be efficient, or even democratic. It's a place where Wyoming, with an estimated 2008 population of 532,000, has the same clout as California and its 36.7 million people. It's also a place that treasures extended debate, ensuring by its rules that it's hard to cut off debate and force a vote.
Extended debate is therefore historically a tactic cherished by minorities of every ideology and party. It's an important source of power for every senator, whether it's a southern Democrat circa 1964 fighting civil rights law or a Republican today opposing government involvement in health care.
Reid's remarks came a day after President Barack Obama urged Senate Democrats to make history by passing the measure. On Monday Reid noted that Republicans have questioned the historic value of the bill.
"Instead of joining us on the right side of history, all Republicans have come up with is this: 'Slow down, stop everything. Let's start over,'" he said. "You think you've heard these same excuses before. You're right. In this country, there were those who dug in their heels and said, 'Slow down. It's too early. Let's wait.'"
He cited some examples of history's nay-sayers: "Things aren't bad enough about slavery," he recalled them saying. "When women wanted to vote, slow down, there will be a better day to do that. . . . Some senators resorted to the same filibuster we hear today."
Republicans were outraged.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. labeled them "inflammatory" and "irresponsible."
GOP Chairman Michael Steele said Reid's comments comparing his effort to pass health care to the bid to end slavery were "deeply insulting" and came from "an elected official saying anything, doing anything, running roughshod over any citizen who opposes his left-wing effort to jam big-government run health care down our throats."
Ronald Walters, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, said that Reid's comparison to the days of slavery doesn't apply, because today's political parties are very different than they were during the 19th century slavery debates, as well as the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Democratic Party of the 1800s was considered the party of landowners who owned slaves, while the GOP was viewed as a more radical party, Walters said, because of its opposition to slavery.
"And 21st century Republicans today are like Southern Democrats of the past," Walters said.
In 1964, Senate Democrats led a 57-day debate on the landmark Civil Rights Act that ended only when 27 Republicans joined 44 Democrats to cut off the debate. Twenty-three Democrats and six Republicans voted to keep talking.
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