In the 109th Congress, the majority Republicans in the House regarded the Senate as the graveyard of their legislation. Many a bill passed in the lower chamber would go to the upper to die.
That meant the Senate had the power. It could say to the House, Legislate all you want, but this is where what becomes law gets decided.
But Tuesday's stunning House vote on Medicare, in which 129 Republicans were part of a 355-59 majority voting for a Democratic bill, has changed the dynamic. The Senate is jumping to attention.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) swiftly began the process of bringing the House bill to the Senate floor. One of his aides noted that the House vote showed “significant bipartisan support” for the bill and Reid hoped to “pass it as quickly as possible.”
Not long ago, before anyone looked to the House for legislative leadership on the issue, talk focused on whether Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee, and his ranking member, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), would reach agreement on Medicare legislation that could get 60 votes. The House effectively grabbed the microphone from the Senate.
A pattern of House initiative is developing, most recently with the recent deal on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). It was in the House that the Democratic leadership decided to retain legal immunity for telecommunication companies in exchange for Republican acceptance of domestic spending being loaded onto the Iraq war supplemental funding bill.
It may be that the FISA legislation, the war supplemental and the Medicare bill all stumble. Perhaps they will somehow come unglued in the Senate. But that seems unlikely. They were delivered with aplomb by the House, and they do not look likely to be buried in the graveyard.
On FISA and the war supplemental, the Republican House leadership played a practical and important role in getting legislation done (as we commented in this space last week). But on Medicare, they ended up with egg on their faces. Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) confidently predicted that the Democrats could not get the bill through. As it turned out, he was crushed, with even his immediate subordinate, Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.), voting yes.
Democratic leaders in the House have shown an impressive burst of energy, confidence and tactical shrewdness recently. With a rosy electoral result apparently beckoning them in November, they might be tempted to comment, “You ain't seen nothin' yet.”