One of the interesting things about the debt ceiling debate is that most of the compromise plans being suggested are coming from a bipartisan group of Senators, the so-called Gang of Six. (Seriously: we need to dump the “gang” thing.) Even arch-conservatives like Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn seem willing to deal. Meanwhile, the tea partiers in the House don’t care: their answer is just no.
Which leads to the obvious question: why is the Senate willing to deal but the House isn’t?
I think the core of this answer lies in the US Constitution. It bears remembering that the Senate was created to moderate the passions of the House. The most famous story illustrating this intent has Thomas Jefferson asking James Madison why the Constitution includes a Senate in the first place. Madison asked Jefferson why people pour tea into their saucer before drinking it (something I guess people did in 1788). Jefferson’s reply was, “to cool it off.” Madison response was the functional equivalent of “exactly.”
Structurally, the fact that Senators get 6 year terms, with only 1/3 elected every 2 years, is designed to make it difficult for any group or interest to gain majority control of the Senate easily or quickly. Whereas adherents of one party—dare I say faction?—might take complete control of the House in one election, that same party can only take 1/3 of the Senate seats up for election (at most). In order to take control of the Senate, the faction has to win 2 elections, sustaining its gains from 2 years prior while adding to them in the subsequent election. Which is, it turns out, hard.
As a practical matter, then, the Senate is not in thrall to the tea party like the House is. Even conservative Senators know that, for the most part, it’s another three or five years before they have to face an election, and the particular vagaries of the 2011 debt ceiling fight probably won’t matter much in 2014 or 2016. In the House, meanwhile, everyone has to defend their seat, often in newly drawn districts, just 15 months from now. Sooner, if they face a primary.
This is not the say that the Senate is always wonderful. As Obama (and others) has found throughout much of his Presidency, a determined band of Senators can be profoundly obstructionist if they wield their power of the filibuster and the anonymous hold aggressively. But this time, the Senate is acting exactly as the Constitution intends, cooling the passions of the House.
Of course, even tea that is cooling off can still scald you. As we may yet find out!
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