Feb 5, 2021 • 1HR 10M

A Special Episode With "The Senate Whisperer" Lawrence O'Donnell

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On The Cycle, political strategist Rachel Bitecofer speaks with today's headline makers about politics.
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Like many of you, the realization that Democrats would have majority control of the Senate after the improbable victories of Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s runoff elections on January 5th was electrifying! I imagine that for one of my personal heroes, Stacey Abrams, it also came with a deeply satisfying “see! we told you this electoral strategy would work!” as we saw how modernized electioneering can pay dividends even in some of the harshest electoral environments.

My joy was tempered only by the fact that Democrats would have a 50 seat majority-where Vice President Harris would have to step in and provide tie-breaking votes for all legislation Democrats managed to pass with a simple majority, which I’m sorry to tell you is not a lot of legislation. Only bills that qualify under something called “reconciliation” pass through the senate via simple majorities (though confirmations are all now free from the filibuster).

A 50/50 senate involves a power sharing agreement between the majority party, which is the party that holds the tie-breaking vote of the vice president, and the minority party. The minority party in this case being the modern Republican Party, a party that has been completely overtaken by extremism and run by a leader in Mitch McConnell who has spent the past decade destroying the norms of the senate in pursuit of party politics with abandon.

I was trying to dust of my THC-laden brain cobwebs from 2002-2003 to recall what it was like when the senate last did its 50/50 power-sharing stint. But that was a weird time. First off, Jim Jeffords quit being a Republican shortly after and the power sharing arrangement with Dick Cheney as tie-breaker stuff only went on for a couple of months. Then 9/11 happened, and for the Millennials and Zoomers, that changed everything.

As Schumer was absolutely right to recognize, the agreement reached back then was bound to be far more amenable than anything that might have been negotiated 20 years later during the peak of the polarized era- with Mitch McConnell. This was immediately validated when McConnell refused to hand over control of the chairs of the senate’s committees- holding them hostage for 3 weeks until verbally agreeing to transfer them to Democrats and then taking an additional 4th week to actually follow through with it. The effect of this was to reduce the Democrat’s tenure in the majority by a full month- certainly more than a symbolic effort.

Further, McConnell impacted the transition significantly by recessing the senate until January 19th, the day before Biden’s inauguration. The impact of this decision was largely discussed in terms of any potential movement on an impeachment trial- which the long recess delayed. Impactful as that was perhaps more important was the impact it had on the Biden transition, already significantly hamstrung by Trump’s efforts to pull off a coup. Reports of a “hostile” transition, of Trump officials in key departments like the Department of Defense refusing to meet with President-Elect Biden and his transition team, something we’d not seen in the modern era and for obvious reasons having to do with national security complication, tended to focus on speculations of potential pettiness on the part of the departing president and/or his team in the given departments investigators are now exploring whether access was denied for other, much more nefarious reasons.

As it relates here though, the Biden Admin is starting with a very atypical deficit. Normally, pre-inauguration, key cabinet personnel like the Secretary of Defense, Homeland Security (albeit this is a newish position), Secretary of State- cabinet positions that (aside from when they are nominated by Donald Trump) tap unquestionably qualified, non-controversial nominees because they are so critical to the security and smooth operation of the country, they shouldn’t be left vacant ever. Well, so petty is the modern GOP which prioritizes fucking with Democrats far above national security, when Joe Biden was sworn in at noon on January 20th 2021, he had 0 cabinet members in place. Yes, you read that correctly. 0. Now, it should be noted that Trump only had 2 cabinet members in place- both within the national security realm- and that is really low compared to the 6 that were confirmed by inauguration for Obama and the 7 for George W. Bush.

BUT, and this is a critical distinction, Trump’s own party controlled the Senate and some of the issues on delay & low confirmation rates stemmed from Trump’s unorthodox choices in some key cabinet positions (Betsy Devos?!)- even back in that original class of nominees who unlike later picks, could at least get confirmed by a REPUBLICAN senate.

And friends, here is another REALLY IMPORTANT distinction that I think makes the 6 & 7 pre-confirmed, ready to roll America, cabinets of George W. Bush and Barack Obama versus the 0 confirmed cabinet members given to Biden in the midst of a global pandemic and economic crisis even more remarkable. 16 days into his administration, with Democrats ostensibly in control of the Senate and a crop of nominees who are among the best qualified and least controversial a group ever put forward by a president, just 6 of them have been confirmed by the Senate. Two weeks in and Biden is just now reaching the starting line of his predecessors.

Given this, shall we say “rough start,” I wanted to talk with someone who is really well-versed in the senate- its norms, its operations, how the rules work, and what we might expect in a 50/50 “power sharing” arrangement with the world’s most dishonest broker to function like. I wanted this person to be reasonably well-removed from the current senate, from current senators, from staffers, etc. because I wanted them to feel comfortable, due to separation from the current institution and its members and staffers, to speak frankly about the institution without the urge to protect it too fiercely.

I desperately wanted that person to be Lawrence O’Donnell, who I find to be one of the most compelling and interesting hosts on MSNBC. And I’m not just saying this because when my election theory first emerged, it was Lawrence who reported on it after getting this article about it sent to him by our now mutual friend Karen Russell. Karen is the daughter of some guy named Bill Russell you’ve probably never heard of.

Lawrence’s coverage of my research helped it gain an audience and also led to one of the most valuable compliments I’ve ever received, one I fall back on at times when I need to be reminded that my work has value. Lawrence and I had several great convos on his show about my electoral theory which, did, after all, end up nailing the 2020 presidential election outcome (which is one thing) but much, much more importantly, really getting the why and how the 2020 election would play out.

So I was over the moon when Lawrence agreed to come onto the pod for what was supposed to a short convo, but what ended up being a long one. One in which I learned ALOT about the senate, then and now. Things I had NO IDEA about. Great stories about Lawrence’s time there. I went into this convo understanding I had serious weaknesses about understanding the rules and procedures of the senate. And about 10 versions of questions from you about how to get Joe Manchin and Kristin Sinema to give in on the filibuster (I think Lawrence’s answer will surprise you there). As best as I could I tried working your questions into this conversation and where I failed, I apologize- I’m not too proud to admit I got very nervous! I hope you all enjoy the conversation and an opportunity to get to know Lawrence O’Donnell a little better. I know I did.