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Senate Vote on Stimulus Shows a Hand Well-Played

After cruising the Rags of Record for insightful reports on the Senate vote on the stimulus, take a couple of minutes to read Dieter Bradbury's article in the Kennebec Journal Morning Sentinel, "Collins gains political capital in vote: Senator won't back stimulus if bloated spending measures reinstated." Bradbury's article provides an interesting home-state perspective on what is involved in piecing together a barely filibuster-proof majority, while focusing on Collin's pivotal role in sculpting the compromise. Bradbury also does a good job of showing how Collins boosted her own stock, including:

Richard M. Skinner, a government professor at Bowdoin College, said Collins is now in good shape to win administration and Democratic support for bills that would benefit Maine, having played a pivotal role in the economic stimulus debate..."She's really in a position to get what she wants from the Obama administration," he said.

While artfully covering her rear flank:

Even if the stimulus fails and the economy continues to decline, it's unlikely that Collins would pay a price for supporting the measure, said Sandy Maisel, who teaches government at Colby College."If this is passed and it is seen as a failure, it will reflect on the Obama administration," he said.

Maisel said the risk for Collins lies just ahead, as a conference committee hashes out differences between the $827 billion Senate bill and the $820 billion House version. Collins has said she will not support the bill if "bloated" spending provisions are reinserted...."If she decides she's not going to vote for the conference report, then she is in the position of being the person who causes this to go down," Maisel said.

Hard to see much of an upside in Collins playing a spoiler role. But the option is there if public opinion heads south on the stimulus, an unlikely prospect, if recent polls are any indication.

The 61-36 procedural vote was close to perfect, indicating that the compromise bill is about as progressive as it could have been and still pass. This is not to say that the left critics are wrong about the stimulus being too small and the tax cuts too large to do much good -- a separate question. They may be right. But a razor-close margin is exactly what you want to see to get the most progressive possible bill passed.

Collins' leadership shows the important role liberal Republicans will play during the Obama administration. Sure, we would rather have a filibuster-proof Senate majority. But it helps a lot to have a few Republicans neutralizing the ideologues in their own party. It reminds me of a similar situation back in 1982-83, when Republican Congressman Jack Kemp was instrumental in passing the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday bill. From a pragmatic, reform agenda point of view, the proper care and feeding of liberal Republicans is a worthy Democratic priority.

Give due credit as well to President Obama and his legislative staff for having the smarts to give Collins the room she needed to maneuver the centrists into position and cobble the majority together. Harry Reid also owes her big time. As Bob Herbert put it in his New York Times column today,

It’s early, but there are signs that Mr. Obama may be the kind of president who is incomprehensible to the cynics among us — one who is responsible and mature, who is concerned not just with the short-term political realities but also the long-term policy implications...Mr. Obama is like a championship chess player, always several moves ahead of friend and foe alike. He’s smart, deft, elegant and subtle. While Lindsey Graham was behaving like a 6-year-old on the Senate floor and Pete Sessions was studying passages in his Taliban handbook, Mr. Obama and his aides were assessing what’s achievable in terms of stimulus legislation and how best to get there.

It will take a little more time to see if the white house is really playing championship chess. For now, however, the poker analogy fits nicely, and Obama and Collins have just played a very shrewd hand.