It took John Kerry 14 years to get a seat on the Senate Finance Committee.
That’s supposedly what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Angus King when the Senate’s newest independent requested a seat on the prestigious taxwriting committee. King was hoping to replace Olympia Snowe, the retiring Maine Republican whose seat he won, and keep his state’s representation on the committee. Democrats are expected to need up to three new Finance members if Kerry joins the administration in a top-level Cabinet post. (One of those seats, however, is widely believed to have already been promised to Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.)
King made the request when he was negotiating his entrance into the Democratic caucus. While he made some noise about possibly remaining independent, or even caucusing with Republicans (he listened to a presentation from Sen. Roy Blunt), there was very little doubt that King would end up giving the Democrats a solid 55-45 seat majority in the Senate.
It is true that King was fighting an uphill battle to get on Finance. The size of the Democratic majority and the fact that no one in Washington seriously believed he would join the Republicans undermined his bargaining position. And the former governor of Maine made it clear from the beginning that he wasn’t going to use the Finance seat as a deal-breaker for joining the Democratic caucus.
Reid probably doesn’t want King on Finance. Tax issues are expected to be a major part of next year’s agenda. Besides leftover fiscal cliff business (which might include extension of the Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax cut, extenders, and the AMT patch, depending on what Congress accomplishes in the next month), corporate and individual tax reform could be discussed. Even if tax reform isn’t seriously addressed, President Obama has made it clear that he intends to pursue a grand bargain on deficit reduction, and Democrats are determined to make new taxes a part of that process.
So it’s imperative that Reid have as many reliable votes on Finance as possible. Casey might be seen as a moderate Democrat, but he certainly isn’t a Ben Nelson. And Reid might suspect that King could turn out to be just that: a Democrat in name only who frequently undermines the efforts of the majority. (Reid has a lot of experience dealing with this issue after a half-dozen Nelsons gutted the healthcare reform effort in 2009, and it’s something he probably doesn’t want to repeat.)
But King’s proclamations of independence and the chance that he might keep an open mind to both sides’ proposals is exactly why he belongs on Finance. Let’s be optimistic for a moment and assume that Obama’s grand bargain involves tax reform. Or that Obama or House Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp succeed in getting serious consideration for their corporate tax plans in the Senate. Isn’t it imperative that the Senate pass a bill that has a chance of being taken up by the Republican House?
Congress has been mired in gridlock for two years. The Democratic Senate and the Republican House have not only been on different pages on tax issues, but on different planets. And that has frequently made it almost impossible for Obama to reach any kind of agreement. As Bob Woodward pointed out in his book on the debt ceiling negotiations, it appears that the president needs to hit a constantly moving target in order to reach a deal acceptable to both chambers of Congress.
An independent on the Finance Committee could theoretically help soften the edges of Democratic legislation. If King keeps his word and remains open to Republican solutions (which is no sure thing, because he could turn out to be an independent in name only, much like Bernie Sanders), Finance Democrats might be forced to move closer to tax legislation that the House will find acceptable. Unless the ratios change, a threat from King to side with the GOP on the committee could prevent bills from advancing.
King might turn out to be just another reliable Democratic vote. Many senators claim they will be an independent voice in Washington and end up becoming another member of their caucus (look at Kirsten Gillibrand, Mark Warner, or Lisa Murkowski). And Reid almost certainly doesn’t want an unreliable vote on Finance. As a Democrat, he needs to match House Speaker John Boehner’s ability to reliably report acceptable legislation out of committee.
But as the Senate majority leader of a divided Congress that must make progress on many critical issues, Reid could take a chance on moving slightly to the center. He should take King at his word and put an independent on Finance. If nothing else, it might indicate to the public that a thaw in the hyperpartisan climate in Washington is possible.