Monthly Archives: February 2009

Technology and the Future of Warfare

By Marc Seltzer; Originally published on January 26, 2009, at care2.com/causes/politics/blog

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Warfare and its violence are changing in profound ways because of robotic technologies.  Arial drones, essentially unmanned planes, operated by pilots sitting at computer consuls in the United States, are playing a greater and more violent role in warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  While initially these drones, with names like Predator, Global Hawk and Pac Bot, were used for surveillance, they are now being used to conduct battlefield operations, including targeted killings.

The new weapons are a natural outcome of technological development and the arms race.  However, they raise fundamentally new questions about the conduct of warfare.  Remotely operated machines that fight our wars present logistical, ethical and psychological challenges new to humanity.  For example, operators of these weapons systems may be trained more by XBox and Play Station gaming experience than by boot camp and military officer’s school. Accidents resulting in civilian casualties in Afghanistan may now be the responsibility of someone working in an office building in California or Nevada.  However, the increased power and savings in lives and resources are speeding these new technologies into our mainstream military operations now.

Radio talk show host Terry Gross recently conducted an important interview with P. W. Singer, author of the new book Wired For War; The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century.  Mr. Singer talks about a world that sounds of science fiction but which is in fact part of current Department of Defense operations.

Listen to the Fresh Air program podcast from January 22, 2009, and begin to participate in this important conversation. This debate will undoubtedly take years to work through, but it must begin across America.

Economy in Decline (part 2 of a 3 part series)

 

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Stimulus legislation comes in at $789 billion.

 

As the stimulus legislation is formalized into law, the public is still reeling at the price tag.  

Congress has committed $789 billion in new spending and tax relief, as well as the $700 billion already committed in October of 2008 to support failing banking institutions and an additional $2 trillion dollars, proposed by Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, to support financial and real estate sector recovery.

Economists from government, academia and business, whose trade is big numbers and abstract concepts, have been at the forefront of analyzing this crisis.  There is fervent activity among economists across the political spectrum and disagreement as to what should be done to solve problems that individually and collectively are not exactly like those faced, studied and dealt with in the past.

A Major Government Effort

A significant number of leading economists agree that stimulation of the economy, as it slows, will help counter the worst effects of its decline. 

This is more than a political concern for the personal hardships of unemployment, foreclosure, bankruptcy and lost opportunity that recessions engender.  The overall cost to the nation in growth, productivity and economic leadership is also significant.

With an economy estimated to lose trillions of dollars in activity because of the credit crisis and recession, only a massive stimulus law could have substantial impact.

Painted with a broad brush, the stimulus bill gives money to the pubic in the form of tax cuts ($282 billion – $400 per individual, $800 per family or $250 in Veterans and Social Security benefits) and increased unemployment benefits.  It increases public spending ($507 billion) on a wide variety of programs including infrastructure, green technology, support for cancer research and education.  It also provides emergency funding to states ($87 billion) to support state Medicaid funding.  

The hope is that this money will keep people employed, spending and receiving services until the worst of the recession is over and private business activity resumes at a level sufficient to increase employment, spending and tax revenue.

Doubts and Fears

The bill is only a part of the government’s efforts to remedy the economic decline, and yes, the price tag is staggering. 

Despite fears about the economic decline, many Americans have expressed concern and outrage at the scale of public spending, fearing that the money will be wasted and that increasing the deficit will pass the buck for fiscal responsibility to our children and grandchildren.  

Some accept the tax cuts as needed for stimulation of the economy, preferring money in private hands to government spending.  The abrupt increase in public spending also raises fears of inflation in the long run, even as deflation from falling prices and incomes is the current worry.

Among supporters, there is the belief that money lost from the private economy should be made up at least in part through public and private spending, but also that public services have been shortchanged and commitments to public education, green initiatives and infrastructure will improve the nation and lives of citizens.

Costs and Benefits

The real aim of the legislation is to stabilize the economy by supporting business activity through the most dangerous phase of the slowdown.  President Barack Obama has spoken of keeping the recession from spiraling downward as more layoffs cause more foreclosures and drops in personal and business spending, eventually leading to more businesses closing their doors and a snowball effect of economic contraction.

An alternative to this action is to accept dramatic decreases in economic activity with resulting unemployment, business closures and cuts in government services and wait for the eventual economic recovery.  

While this approach would risk less in the way of upfront public spending, current leaders feel that to do nothing or only cut taxes, when the risk of long-term economic decline is significant, would be to repeat the mistakes that led to the Great Depression, which lasted more than a decade.  Other proposals, such as one for a short-term capital gain tax waiver to stimulate reinvestment and market confidence were ignored in this bill, but remain available to a government firmly committed to fighting large-scale economic collapse moving forward.

From this perspective, the aggressive action taken by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretaries Henry Paulson and Geithner, President Obama and two Congresses seem promising.   

The government is being responsive, bold and aggressive.  Now, whether it will work, remains for the future to tell. 

Economy in Decline (part 1 of a 3 part series)

 

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More evidence surfaces in spite of Bush tax cuts, bank support and lower interest rates.

 

With more bad economic news pointing toward bank failures, business closures and layoffs, politicians on both sides of the aisle are crafting plans to aid the economy.  As the recession teeters on the brink of an even deeper slump, politicians are reaching for ever-larger and less traditional solutions.

The next few weeks will unleash an unprecedented national recovery program.  This three part series will examine the problems, proposed solutions and politics of the economic crisis.

What We Know

 

While Republicans and Democrats certainly have different philosophical beliefs about the causes, both sides agree we are in a severe recession.  The growth rate of the economy has fallen (by 3.8 percent annual rate last quarter) and unemployment is now rising significantly as a result.  This recession is more precarious than many others in that the failings of two specific industries, the financial industry and real estate, have seen extreme shifts and have threatened to slow other sectors of the economy dramatically beyond a “normal” recession.


The financial industry collapse is particularly devastating because it is restricting financing to consumers and businesses, which must further curtail their activity to avoid risking hardship and failure.  The deflation in real estate has undermined American wealth and confidence since so many counted their home as a no-risk asset and investment vehicle. 

Stakes Are High

 

Economists fear that the speed, breadth and worldwide scope of decline could lead to a downward spiral in world economies.  Markers of this decline include extremely high unemployment rates, poor business confidence and long-term economic stagnation with low or negative GDP growth.  The decline in gross domestic product for the U.S. in the first quarter of 2009 is already anticipated to be at a -5 percent annual rate.

The choices for private businesses under stress are limited.  Either downsize and try to weather the economic storm, file bankruptcy and try to maintain operations in a leaner structure, or shut down.  In some cases, the writing is on the wall; in others, it depends on how long the recession lasts.

In the face of this economic distress, the Bush administration moved to support the economy as a whole and the institutions in greatest risk of failure.  Interest rates were lowered to promote borrowing for future business activity.  Taxes were lowered so the public could spend more.  Controversially, banks were given public funds to keep them in business.


What We Don’t Know

 

Unfortunately, neither interest rate cuts, tax cuts, nor bank bailouts have stopped the decline.  It is not just the fact that government action can take many months or years to filter its way through the economy and show up in statistics.  In the immediate term, the banking system continues to fail, the real estate market continues to worsen and the economy stands on the doorstep of a significant period of decline.  

Adding to these larger-than-life issues is the fact that many Americans are facing the reality of large-scale layoffs.

No recovery can occur until the banking crisis and real estate decline have stabilized.  These problems require extraordinary solutions that will be costly, uncertain and politically unpopular.   Yet, only once a permanent fix has been set in place, can the government’s plans for stimulus have meaningful effect.

The next parts of this series will focus on the Obama administration’s banking and real estate fixes, as well as the Congressional stimulus proposals and their effectiveness at returning the economy to health and prosperity.

The Obama administration has promised to present proposals on these issues in coming weeks.

Barack H. Obama in Week Three: How’s He Doing?

 

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What’s all the nonsense about Obama struggling?

The man is 47, has a sharp mind that is suited to judgment of competing ideas, makes speeches at the level of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, has a sensibility that is not so populist as to be deluded, and not so elite as to have lost touch.  He has simultaneously minority and elite status and has a genuinely all-American work ethic and positive disposition.

He begins his presidency with 58 or 59 Democratic Senators (depending on when Al Franken stops telling jokes and shows up for work) and two popular moderate and less partisan Republicans from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who are not likely to stand in filibuster against him.

In the House of Representatives, Democrats number 262 to the Republicans 178, which means the President can lose more than 40 Democrats and still pass his agenda in the House.

President Obama has spent the last two years invigorating public participation and activating Democrats to tune in and take a stand.

The choices before him are complex and the problems not easy to solve.  The President has shown in just three short weeks that he is not beholden to anyone.  Liberals are irritated by his centrist nominations.  Republicans challenged his stimulus bill and lost.  Obama demanded a fast response from congress and he got one.

His decisions may or may not solve the credit crisis, real estate market collapse, or spiraling recession, but he certainly is in command.  Franklin Roosevelt made many false steps working through the Great Depression.  In the end, his policies eased the pain, but it was the publicly financed industrial development during World War II that threw off the slump and earned the United States an economic rebirth.

So too Obama may have to readjust course as he evaluates the effect of his administration’s approach to economic difficulty and the country walks a tight-rope.  When he does, critics will attack his every misstep, but if there is any clarity to be gained from his first weeks in office, it is that he will retain command.  Anticipate that this President will respond actively, and until the next election, without gridlock tying his hands.

Temporary Bank Nationalization

 


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Image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/gi/388322867/; license under creative commons

 

I believe it is likely that President Barack Obama and his Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, will move to nationalize one or more major banking institutions in the coming weeks. 

This would be a controversial step for the new administration.  And a courageous one. 

The very idea of nationalization is so antithetical to free market economic principles, that this article is bound to illicit alarm and condemnation.  And rightfully so.  Nationalization, especially on this scale, must truly be a last resort.

The two most likely targets are Citibank and Bank of America, with an estimated combined worth of more than $100 billion.  Two banks that are “Too big to fail.”

These banks are also very likely insolvent.  

The Bush administration tried to solve immediate financial problems by investing through the Treasury’s previous $700 billion bailout fund.  Bank of America and Citibank (Citigroup), in addition to receiving their portion of the bailout, also required many additional commitments to insure against losses.  

Lately, the press has focused on scandals over executive pay, lack of accountability for public funds and concern that banks were not doing their part to extend credit. These may be valid, but they obscure the concern that the investment, to date, does not appear to be enough to keep the banks operating.  

So the government has a choice.  

Continue to invest more taxpayer funds, in hopes the tide will soon turn, or face the music and take over the failed entities.  It would be one thing if we were near the end of this recession and the funds were just a bridge to an inevitable recovery, but we’re not. 

Unfortunately, predictions for 2009 are bleak, and as finances go, so does the viability of banks.  A significant rise in unemployment risks another round of foreclosures and a further weakening of bank mortgage portfolios.  

In this light, nationalization is courageous.  With banks insolvent, doing anything else simply puts off the reckoning for a later date.  

Nationalization does not eliminate financial risk, but does give the government the sole right to collect from the sale of bank assets when they are returned to private hands.  

Under this scenario however, current shareholders would most likely see their interests wiped out.

The Obama administration’s plan to support the real estate market is still unknown.  A dramatic act could conceivably stop the mortgage weakness that continues to weigh down the banks, making the path forward more positive. 

However, for the new administration, there is great political risk.  Already facing criticism for preparing to spend nearly a trillion dollars on fiscal stimulus, some of which looks like pork-barrel politics as it goes through Congress, the administration would face a whole new magnitude of concern for its attempt to run the megabanks.
 

There is no doubt that the administration would only be seeking temporary nationalization.  The new team has professed no desire to control or profit from the business of banking, but does have a few good options.  The banks are involved in so many credit, retail and financing operations that a shut down would be disastrous for an innumerable number of its customers still fighting for survival.  

On the other hand, when the bank is returned to private hands, the government, not the current shareholders, would likely recoup much of its investment.

Let’s unlock politics, where do you stand on nationalization of insolvent banks?

Richard Holbrooke Named Diplomatic Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan

 

 

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Photo of Holbrooke and Russian General by Estonian Foreign Ministry, licensed by creative commons

President Barack Obama has named senior statesman Richard Holbrooke to be the diplomatic shepherd of American foreign policy interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ambassador Holbrooke has a wealth of experience and international stature, which will serve the administration well in its effort to achieve maximum impact through renewed diplomacy.

The conflict in Afghanistan, now in its eighth year, is likely to rise in priority as the United States draws down the number of troops needed in Iraq and redeploys some of those forces to Afghanistan. The last two years have also seen a resurgence of Taliban and anti-government forces, threatening to undermine the coalition efforts to support national government authority and regional stability.  

President Obama has already begun planning for troop and supply increases to aid the coalition in Afghanistan.  Holbrooke will be deeply involved in supporting and assessing the “smart power” marriage of development, governance and cultural progress with security and offensive war-fighting operations.  

Holbrooke has extensive State Department experience in Asia and Europe, culminating in positions as Ambassador to Germany and subsequently to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton.  He promoted the expansion of NATO and its participation in the 1990s’ conflict in Bosnia. 

Recognizing, the symbolic power of American leadership was at stake in the intervention, Holbrooke stated“[this] will be the key test of American policy in Europe.  We must therefore succeed in whatever we attempt.”  He brokered the lasting peace deal in the Bosnian conflict which resulted in the Dayton accords.

In 2001, as Holbrooke left the post of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, he said, “Iraq will be one of the major issues facing the incoming Bush administration at the United Nations.” 

Further, “Saddam Husseins activities continue to be unacceptable and, in my view, dangerous to the region and, indeed, to the world, not only because he possesses the potential for weapons of mass destruction but because of the very nature of his regime. His willingness to be cruel internally is not unique in the world, but the combination of that and his willingness to export his problems makes him a clear and present danger at all times.”  

More recently, in the face of ongoing violence in Iraq, Holbrooke called for a “new diplomatic offensive in the Gulf region to help stabilize Iraq.”

Holbrooke’s negotiating experience with parties in armed conflict may help navigate the complex issues Pakistan adds to Afghan regional security.  In the last two years, Taliban insurgents have relied on supply and manpower from neighboring Pakistan to renew and sustain offensive operations.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has had growing political instability and violence as a result of its own extremist factions. Recent terrorism in Mumbai, India, further illustrates that Pakistan is exporting terrorism beyond its borders and that the government has been unwilling or unable to effectively police insurgents.  

Holbrooke will begin intensive discussions with the recently elected leadership in Pakistan on a wide range of security issues.

Also regarded as forward-thinking, Holbrooke was among the first to focus official U.N. consideration on AIDS/HIV in African programs in 2001.  Subsequently, the Bush administration embraced a major commitment to AIDS/HIV treatment, widely regarded as one of the administration’s most successful humanitarian achievements.

War Crimes for President Bush?

Originally published February 4, 2009, at politicsunlocked.com

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Dick Cheney, George Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld

Photo by milesgehm; licensed creative commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 

The recent executive order issued by President Barack Obama, aimed at opening more presidential records to the public, has renewed discussion of the potential investigation and prosecution of Bush administration officials, including the former President himself.

Talk show host Rush Limbaugh has gone so far as to call the executive order ‘not American,’ foreseeing a media frenzy to find evidence of war crimes against former President George W. Bush.  

In its own right, the executive order, geared toward opening presidential records to scholars and journalists, is sound policy aimed at making government “of the people” more accountable.

Prosecution of George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, or other former Bush administration officials would certainly be a colossal mistake.  

Prosecuting leaders who make unpopular decisions, instead of removing them from office by electoral vote, undermines the office of the Presidency and the democratic process itself.  The belief that such prosecution would be objective, outside politics and justified by the death and destruction in Iraq or detention facilities around the globe, is simplistic.

The decisions of George W. Bush and his administration, in response to 9/11, in protecting the nation’s securitythrough the conduct of foreign wars, through surveillance, investigation, prosecution and detention, were exactly the kinds of profoundly difficult choices that those in high office are required to make.  True, they didimpinge upon the rights and freedoms of citizens and treat some non-citizen detainees brutally.  And while we may disagree, we should not underestimate the dilemma inherent in such decisions.

The President must lead in the face of rival and enemy nations, competing ideologies, religious and ethnic strife, economic turmoil and natural calamity.  At stake is the freedom, prosperity, justice and dignity of not only 300 million Americans, but also that of the nations with whom we cooperate, guide, and in many cases, help protect.

Balancing individual rights and national security is the President’s responsibility.  There are counterbalancing institutions of Congress and courts, but they generally exist to provide legislation and oversight, constitutional interpretation and protection of individual rights.  It is not perfection we seek, but balance.  

Barack Obama expressly campaigned against controversial Bush administration policies on Iraq, detentions and torture.  His election represents a shift in policy — a sign that the democratic system is working. 

Using civil or criminal courts against Bush administration officials, even in the belief that laws have been broken, will be political and would devastate our governmental system. 

The actions of the former President have outraged many, but cannot be equated with the war crimes or genocide for which international criminal laws have been devised.

Stimulus: Feel Good Spending v. Investment in the Future

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By Marc Seltzer; Originally published on February 5, 2009, at care2.com

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There is no question that Barack Obama’s plan for creating jobs will ease the pain of this economic downturn.  However, in the long term, not all jobs are equal.

There are examples from the past of public spending programs that employed many Americans and paid off handsomely.  Constructing the interstate highways cost 114 billion dollars (adjusted for inflation, upwards of 425 billion) and employed hundreds of thousands over 30-plus years.  The result facilitated interstate commerce greatly, contributing to American’s industrial and commercial success and prosperity.

John F. Kennedy’s Mission to the Moon likewise employed hundreds of thousands in the effort to send a man to the moon during the 1960s.  The payoff was in leadership in science and engineering and advances in aerospace and communications technology, which have transformed our economy and way of life.

It is against these examples that our current spending proposals in congress should be measured.  Building and repairing roads today will no longer transform the industrial or productive capacity of tomorrow.  Even repairing bridges, some badly in need, though valuable, will not multiply the economic gains through new industrial and commercial success.  Roads and bridges are important, but they should simply be included in existing infrastructure plans to be paid for where they bring value within government budgets.

What does measure up?

The types of public spending that could bring jobs now and prosperity in the future are those that successfully address current economic problems.  For example, nationally, we spend far too much money on health care for the services that we receive.  We could put doctor and insurance records on line in a step towards better managing our system and we can spend more now on research and development from pharmaceuticals and cancer to genes and stem cells with an aim to achieve cost-effective health benefits.

Similarly, in urban centers we spend too much time commuting in traffic, lowering our productivity.  Investment in substantial urban public transportation, such as a comprehensive Los Angeles Metro system and smarter choices nationwide, could make a real difference in long-term productivity and savings in pollution and energy costs.

We also need clean energy that is competitive with oil, which has been economically efficient but environmentally costly.  This might take 10, 25 or even 50 years to develop.  But the investment would pay off in securing new affordable energy that was less environmentally harmful and creating a new commodity that we make and trade rather than import to our detriment.

Most importantly, our education is failing to produce a new generation that can lead the world in science, technology, research and all the other fields of importance to our continuing leadership and prosperity. Our commitment to education can’t fluctuate with the cycles of the economy unless we accept that our leadership in the 21st century will waiver.

Investment in any of these fields, that are designed to enhance productivity and profitability of public and private activity, will increase value.  In many ways the other spending included in the stimulus bill is just a temporary fix with long-term negative budget-deficit consequences.

In this light, both Democrats and Republicans have it wrong.  Spending on anything but investments in the future is wasteful–tax cuts ease the pain, but do nothing extraordinary for the future health of the nation.

We can certainly provide unemployment insurance as a safety net for the many who are suffering, but the stimulus bill must aim for productivity and prosperity in the future economy or else it robs us of our precious resources without laying the foundation for sustainable improvement.

Senate Membership Roller Coaster


The Magic Number for Cloture Ending Senate Filibusters

The Magic Number for Cloture Ending Senate Filibusters

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on February 3, 2009, at care2.com

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On the way to sixty — the twists and turns on the way to the Senate.

Leading up to the Presidential election in November 2008, Senate watchers were wondering how close the Democrats would get to the magic number of 60. It takes sixty Senators, under cloture rules, to cut off debate, and proceed to a vote, even where a simple majority of Senators favor passage. There have been arguments over the validity of the filibuster rule itself (essentially a minority party bargaining chip), but it has withstood challenge in the Senate for more than a century. With no filibuster rule in the House and significant Democratic majority expected, the Senate numbers represented the only Republican check on free reigning democratic legislative authority until the 2010 congressional elections.

And so, as the Democrats went into the election with assurances of picking up seats under the sway of Obama’s popularity, Bush’s dismal ratings, looming economic meltdown, and 23 Republican incumbents facing re-election, all eyes were on the numbers.

Essentially, the Democrats needed 9 to reach sixty (two Senate independents side generally with the 49 Democrats). And they got six. Six, that is, on November 4. But that left Alaska, where the longest serving Republican, Ted Stevens, ahead in the count, had been indicted on corruption charges and was being asked by his own party to resign. And Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who only ended up ahead by 230 votes, triggering an automatic recount and analysis that the types of voting machines and propensity for errors, which are corrected by the recount, gave the Democrat Al Franken real hope.

The other Senate changes, first and foremost, Barack Obama’s Illinois Senate seat, and Joe Biden’s Delaware seat, would not change the Senate make-up because Democratic governors of Illinois and Delaware would appoint Democratic replacements. (Though no one could have predicted that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich would be caught on tape seemingly trying to exchange the appointment for the greatest personal gain, would be indicted, impeached, and removed from office, soon after the seat was filled).

Further change in the post-election Senate make-up came from the appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton, replaced finally by Democratic State Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Meanwhile, on November 18, the final count in the close Alaska election reversed Ted Steven’s early lead and put Anchorage Mayor, Mark Begich, in the Senate as Democrat 58.

After further wrangling about erroneously uncounted absentee ballots in Minnesota, ballot challenges and final recount tallies were in, the Minnesota Canvassing board declared comedian Al Franken the victor over Norm (not laughing) Coleman. Republican Coleman has challenged the final tally of 225 votes in Franken’s favor, but Democrat Franken is on his way to being Senate Democrat number 59.

And so it would have remained, except that President Barack Obama’s Commerce Secretary nominee, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, withdrew from consideration in the face of an investigation, and Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire will be nominated instead.

The political dynamic is momentous. On the one hand, Sen. Gregg serves in a state with a Democratic Governor, John Lynch, who would ordinarily choose a Democratic replacement. This would represent the magic 60 in the Senate. Republicans have said that Gregg should not take the position in this situation.

On the other hand, the Commerce position is an important one and one which a Republican advocating free market principles will find especially significant during the economic downturn. There is already talk of protectionism creeping into stimulus legislation and the Commerce Secretary would likely take the lead in advocating against protectionism at home and abroad.

And so, like the best of roller coasters, with unanticipated twists and turns, we have to wait for one more appointment to finally determine the make-up of the 2009 Senate. New Hampshire Governor Lynch is indicating that his appointment will not change the Senate’s party politics.”I will name a replacement who will put the people of New Hampshire first and represent New Hampshire effectively in the U.S. Senate.”

To some extent the numbers will be of symbolic significance since the most moderate of the Republican Senators, such as Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are not likely to join a filibuster against the President except in exceptional circumstances. But with talk of bank nationalizations, deficit-fed stimulus and promises of dramatic change in Washington, these are exceptional circumstances.