By Juan Williams - 07/14/14 06:00 AM EDT
Ten years ago this summer, U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama’s keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention made him a star.
A decade later, the man behind that inspiring voice has been president for six years. But the country is more polarized. Republicans blame Obama. Democrats admit he is not President Johnson or President Clinton when it comes to backslapping and hopping across the aisle to win votes.
Last week, however, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) invited me and a few other columnists to his office to deliver a message: The paralyzed, polarized government is not due to the president’s failure to win friends in Congress. Nor is it because Reid is a “dictator.” In his view, the stalled Senate is the result of an intentional strategy pursued by the Republicans.
Reid pointed to constant filibusters by the GOP minority. Republicans also refuse to allow the use of unanimous consent to move along Senate business, he charged.
Reid asserted that after President Obama was first elected, the GOP met with Frank Luntz, the political adviser, who told them to block everything Obama and Democrats tried to accomplish and then tell voters that Obama was a failure and government could not get anything done.
The result is a backlog of 130 nominees on the Executive Calendar. That includes nominees to subcabinet posts not getting confirmation hearings; a record number of nominees for ambassadorships; and proposed legislation, supported by a majority of Americans, left without any vote. Into this last category can be placed a hike in the minimum wage, background checks for gun purchases, additional long-term unemployment aid and a two-year extension of the Highway Trust Fund.
While the GOP charges the president with exceeding his authority with executive orders, Reid said the press repeats Republican attacks on him for being a “dictator” because he refuses “open amendment” voting on bills.
In the history of the Senate there have been few open amendment votes, he argues. The standard procedure is for both parties to present a list of amendments to the bill.
At the moment, the Republicans are insisting on an open amendment process, the majority leader said, because their caucus is split by the civil war between the Tea Party and the establishment. The Republicans in the Senate are unable to agree on a single list of amendments to present to Democrats.
The Republicans have built a wall around their logjam, Reid argues, by threatening to filibuster most bills, a procedure that can only be overridden with a super-majority of 60 votes.
The Democrats have at most 55 votes. There is a shortage of moderate Republicans after the departure of politicians such as former Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and the late Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Therefore, there is no path around the filibuster.
“All I want to do is legislate,” an exasperated Reid said. “I don’t know what more we can do.” Pointing to baseball managers who kick the dirt and throw their hats, Reid said Senate Republicans do everything in their power to distract the press and voters from the “harm” they are doing to the Congress and the nation.
Reid, a veteran of 32 years in Congress, said pundits are “living in the past,” if they don’t understand that “the Senate is not like it used to be.” Old tales of how bygone congressional leaders like House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) or Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) were able to unite Republicans and Democrats have no relevance to the current situation, he insisted.
Reid’s frustration led him to announce last week that he is considering a vote to change Senate rules and break the power of the GOP filibuster. After the midterm elections, he wants to expand on the so-called ‘Nuclear Option,’ approved by the Senate last year. Under that rule, only 50 votes are required to confirm most judicial nominees. Reid is considering applying the same standard to bills.
When young Obama spoke about a unified America in 2004, about half the nation told pollsters they expected more political unity in the next 10 years as arguments over the war in Iraq and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction faded. Now, a plurality tell pollsters they expect more division in the next 10 years.
A recent Pew poll also found “partisan animosity has increased substantially over [the last 20 years and] the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994.”
Voters in the middle told the pollsters Democrats and Republicans “should simply meet each other halfway in addressing the issues facing the nation.”
Reid is now determined to reply to voters asking, “Why don’t they just work together?”
His answer is that Republicans are refusing to compromise because the GOP is happy to see government fail.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.