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A Specter is Haunting the Democrats

For almost a generation, the Democrats in Congress have been able to pretend to be the party of ordinary working people, the party of progressives, and the inheritor of the mantel of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, all the while doing little of substance and catering primarily to the interests of Wall Street and the nation’s corporate interests.

The Democrats managed this sleight of hand for so long by claiming that while they had the best of intentions, really. Their inability to pass legislation, even when they were in the majority in both houses of Congress, was, they claimed, simply caused by the threat of bills being filibustered to death by a Republican minority.

That excuse has continued to be paraded out to this day, with the party currently having 58 seats in the Senate.

But the excuse is vanishing. It appears likely that Al Franken has won his tight race defeating former Sen. Norm Coleman in Minnesota, with the contest all over but the shouting. (A 3-judge state panel already found Franken to be ahead by 312 votes, with no outstanding issues in the count, and public opinion in the state widely favors Coleman finally conceding.)

And now comes the changeling Arlen Specter, the onetime Democratic district attorney of Philadelphia, who switched to a Republican to run, first for mayor of Philadelphia (unsuccessfully), and then for the US Senate, a post he’s held now for 29 years. But facing likely defeat from the right in a Republican primary for his party’s nomination by a conservative challenger who almost knocked him off last time around, Specter has finally faced reality: In a state that has been moving steadily into the Democratic column for years, his future is with the Democrats.

With Specter switching his party affiliation to Democrat, the Democrats will finally have a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate, and an already solid majority in the House.

There will, at that point, be no more excuse for Democrats to duck progressive, liberal, pro-worker, pro-ordinary person issues, using their old-standby excuse of needing to compromise and win over Republican votes. There won’t even be any need to cater to party turncoat Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) to get things done. For that matter, there won’t be any justification for President Obama to seek “bi-partisanship” for his programs, by watering them down until they are meaningless.

So the way I see it, it’s time for progressives, for the union movement, for the peace movement, for the environmentalist movement, the single-payer health care reform movement, indeed for all progressive elements in the US, to pour on the pressure to get Congress and President Obama to pass real, progressive legislation in this Congress.

To put it simply: We don’t need no effin “bipartisanship” anymore. The Republicans can just be steamrollered–and should be, since that’s exactly why there are so many Democrats in Congress today and why we have a Democratic president. The public has been voting for progressive change.

Now granted, not all Democrats in Congress are progressive, but getting Democrats on board for issues like overriding a filibuster attempt is different from getting Democrats to vote for a particular bill. The party leaders have plenty of leverage in the form of control over the moving forward of members’ bills, of committee assignments, office assignments, etc., to get members of the caucus to line up on procedural votes like terminating a filibuster, if they want to use them.

And of course, that’s where the pressure comes in. No longer can Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) claim that they are hamstrung by the need to win over Republican members to their side. If they don’t use their caucus power to control their own members, they will stand exposed as fake liberals, and fake advocates of ordinary Americans. They will stand exposed as agents of the corporatocracy.

Maybe that’s what they want, but I don’t think the party will survive that kind of exposure.

So let’s get moving. We can start with renewed pressure for single-payer healthcare reform, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and a real end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are litmus test issues for progressives and will let us know if the Democrats are going to keep being the other corporate party, or are going to be a real liberal alternative.

The Employee Free Choice Act will be an interesting one to watch in Specter’s case. Specter, who has long enjoyed union backing in Pennsylvania, a few weeks ago said that after earlier backing the measure he was now not going to support it. But that was when he was facing a bitter Republican primary. Now he has to earn his spurs as a prodigal Democrat, returned to the fold. Unions in Pennsylvania are going to put heavy pressure on him to back the measure if he wants to avoid a primary now in the Democratic Party for nomination as its candidate for Senate next year.

Specter must not be given a free pass to re-election as a Democrat.

DAVE LINDORFF  is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at dlindorff@mindspring.com

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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