A Filibuster or Not?

doug_thompsonBy Doug Thompson

The idea that a bill needs 60 votes to stop a Senate filibuster is not exactly right.

As a practical matter, you need 60 votes to allow a bill to get voted upon.

This type of goofy inside baseball could be what healthcare reform comes down to.

Health care consultant and arch conservative Rich Baehr wrote an article with a headline I’ve waited on for weeks: “Does Obama Have the Votes of Health Care Reform?”

In the House? Oh yeah. In the Senate? Yes – and yes.

“This bill will not get 60 Democratic votes on the floor, but will likely get the 60 votes required for cloture, and a floor vote,” as he sees it.

“Cloture” is the term for the votes you need to stop a filibuster. A filibuster, for those born after color TV became the norm, is stalling. Sixty votes are needed to end debate on a bill. A simple majority is all you need to pass one.

Democrats used the 60-vote threshold throughout the years of the GOP majority in the Senate, from 1995 through 2006.

“It is, I think, highly unlikely that Democratic senators who are unenthusiastic about the bill, such as Nebraska ’s Ben Nelson, will vote with the GOP to sustain a filibuster.” Baer writes. He doesn’t give his reasoning, but it is technically possible.

Why would somebody vote to allow passage of a bill he opposes? Well, for one thing, so he won’t be singled out as a Democratic traitor. Stirring up Republican opposition is bad enough. Throwing cold water on your supporters is worse.

Consider the alternatives: Doing nothing would be more than just defeat. It would reveal Congressional helplessness. No party will – hopefully – ever have this kind of majority margin again. If the Democrats do nothing, they are worse than useless.

The last resort to doing nothing is to sneak as much as possible through as a budget reconciliation bill. That’s a loophole that allows budget bills through with a simple majority. It usually prevents “shut down the government” stunts.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, put the matter pretty plain in one of his more lucid moments, which happened late last month: “To use budget reconciliation in this way would be to employ a legislative loophole to rewrite one-sixth of our economy with 20 hours of debate. If that option is chosen, I think there will be a severely negative and, frankly, appropriate reaction on the part of the American people that this process is jamming through something about which, in the end, we’ll only have bipartisan opposition.”

It would burn all bridges and leave nothing but partisan total war. But, as William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute who was a policy adviser to President Clinton, put it, there aren’t many bridges left anyway. He was quoted in a National Journal column by Eliza Newlin Carney: “On the other hand, as I look at Congress right now, I don’t see a lot of bridges that haven’t been bombed out already. It’s sort of like Europe in 1944.”

Looming above all this is the overarching issue of job loss.

How do you deny a public option when unemployment’s setting a 26-year record? Preserving a system that depends on having a job won’t work for millions. Exactly balancing this out is the other big question. How do you pay for it if you do cover everybody when a hefty chuck of the tax base isn’t working?

Yeah, the recession is ending all right. All that means is that the hole’s not getting much deeper. We also haven’t started to climb back out. The economic statistic that matter to most people – take home pay – isn’t getting better. Companies that survived the crash are looking for bargains and “efficiencies.” We all know what that means.

A penny saved is a penny earned. That’s never more in force than when profits are hard to come by. Business is looking hard for ways to restore profit margins that won’t be seen again for a while yet. Cost cutting is one of the few reliable routes left. Payroll cuts were 263,000 in September compared to 201,000 in August.

The old adage that “It’s the economy, stupid” is still true. We can now be more specific: It’s unemployment. That is the issue of 2010, and I don’t just mean elections.

Categories: Features