Since being re-elected to the Senate and re-elected as majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has made a couple of things clear. There will be no cuts to Social Security. A ban on earmarks, or even a moratorium, would "take away power from the legislative branch," and it would be the "wrong thing to do."
He has not been able to convince his fellow Democrats. President Obama's State of the Union speech included a pledge to veto any legislation that "comes to my desk with earmarks inside," and some soft language about entitlements that, nonetheless, feinted at Social Security reform.
These comments got less attention last week than Obama's ballast about a "Sputnik moment" or ways to "win the future." Unlike the buzzwords, these comments stuck. Last week, members of the Senate's Tea Party Caucus pointed to the State of the Union to argue, in the words of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that the president had been "co-opted" by the Tea Party. On Tuesday, Democrats finished the job.
First, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., introduced a package of spending cuts more draconian than anything Reid, or Democrats, had agreed to. The "Commitment to American Prosperity Act," co-sponsored by eight Republicans, would mandate that spending be driven down from 24.7 percent to 20.6 percent of GDP by 2021. To do so, it would authorize the Office of Management and Budget to "make evenly distributed, simultaneous cuts throughout the federal budget." Social Security, said McCaskill, would be "on the table," ready for the kind of means testing that Democrats had rejected for decades. This was literally the opposite of what Reid had promised.
"Do I want Social Security to be there for my kids and my grandkids?" said McCaskill in a press conference launching the bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "Absolutely. Will I fight like a tiger to make sure that we protect Social Security? I absolutely will. But should we be buying prescription drugs for Warren Buffett with federal tax dollars? Well, that's just nuts! I mean, seriously! Can we afford to be writing checks for multimillionaires' prescription drugs in this country? That's just silly."*
Reid spoke to reporters about two hours after McCaskill proposed this. "I have said many times," he said, "that I will do everything that I can in throwing my legislative body in front of any efforts to weaken Social Security. Social Security has not contributed one penny to the debt, and as I've said before, people should leave Social Security alone."
This was a good rebuttal, sort of. But just as Reid was saying this, the Senate Appropriations Committee announced that it would do the unthinkable and agree to a two-year ban on earmarks, the senatorial carve-outs of spending bills that had been, for decades, the reason for getting on these committees in the first place.
"I continue to support the constitutional right of members of Congress to direct investments to their states and districts under the fiscally responsible and transparent earmarking process that we have established," said appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, echoing Reid. Alas: "Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law."
Let's remember the context for all of this. Every week, or every day, some political observer looks at the Tea Party or the conservative movement and sees the stirring of a Republican civil war. Over the weekend, the New York Times sorted the tea leaves in Indiana, Maine, and Utah and reported that the movement was figuring out which Republicans to target and how to target them in 2012.
That's a sideshow. The conventional wisdom back in November was that conservative activists had gone too far and cost their party enough seats to keep the Senate in Harry Reid's hands. (To be fair, the conventional wisdom transmitted from editorial pages and into the minds of Republicans like Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala.) Sure, a few Tea Party candidates blew it. They're settling; they're completely defining the agenda of the Democratic Senate.