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Democrats Do Not Have 60 Votes


The fact that the Democrats have 60 seats in the Senate occasionally obscures more than it illuminates. This Jon Walker post, for instance, makes a lot more of the fact that Democrats have 60 votes. But they don't, really. They have 60 seats. Not all of those people are votes. Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh and Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln and Joe Lieberman are not reliable supporters of liberal causes, and no one seems to have a lever capable of controlling their votes.

That's not to diminish the importance of 60 seats: If Democrats didn't have 60 seats, then passing health-care reform (or anything big) through the normal Senate order would simply be impossible because Republicans would kill it no matter what they were promised. Because Democrats do have 60 seats, passing health-care reform (or anything big) means making a lot of unpleasant compromises with the few members of your coalition who will scuttle the bill if their demands aren't met.

People think of Ben Nelson as a Democrat, which he technically is. But it's probably more useful to think of him as a somewhat conservative Republican who isn't inclined to support filibusters and can be bought off with the right combination of policy changes and giveaways to Nebraska. Democrats don't have 60 votes so much as they have 56 votes with the option for four or five more. And exercising that option is not a pleasant or dignity-preserving experience.

Photo credit: By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  October 15, 2009; 2:49 PM ET
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Neither Bayh, Lanrieu, Lincoln, nor Nelson, none of them, would vote to filibuster President Obama's robust public option health care bill. Period. If Obama wants a so-called "liberal," aka robust public option in the bill, then all of those Democrats will vote for cloture of a filibuster. If he doesn't, it won't be in the bill. But let's stop saying it's up to Bay, Landrieu, Lincoln, or Nelson. They'll fall in line as soon as Obama tells them to.

Posted by: NealB1 | October 15, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

It is quite pleasant and dignity-preserving for Nelson, Bayh, Landrieu, Lincoln and Lieberman. They basically get to be the tail wagging the dog.


Posted by: toshiaki | October 15, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Are these Democrats (and of course Holy Joe) REALLY going to vote against cloture?


Where are they going to go for support in their next election cycle? If the DNC puts 1 dime toward their campaigns after they thwart the democrat's biggest policy initiative and Obama's signature issue, the DNC is cutting its own throat and good riddance.

Like the repiglicans, they present no alternative plan that covers almost everyone and is deficit neutral. Without a plan, they better not stand in the way of progress.

These traitors better not have any standing in the party if they don't vote for cloture. No committee chairs, no assignments on choice committees they want, no presidential visits, nothing!

The mainstream press better be saying every day that they are obstructing the people's business in the Senate, not expressing a policy opinion by voting against cloture. Let them vote against the final bill. It is is stupid move but they are allowed to be stupid. They should not be allowed to be roadblocks to progress.

Posted by: srw3 | October 15, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

"But they don't, really. They have 60 seats. Not all of those people are votes. Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh and Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln and Joe Lieberman are not reliable supporters of liberal causes, and no one seems to have a lever capable of controlling their votes."

True. But Sen. Lincoln (along with Sens. Carper and Conrad, among other iffy Dem votes, not to mention Sen. Snowe from across the aisle) just voted for the Senate Finance Committee bill.

They, at least, would look pretty ridiculous if they stood up and filibustered a bill that wasn't drastically different from the SFC bill. But isn't the wiggle room between the House bill, the HELP bill, and the SFC bill kinda limited at this point? Wouldn't anyone who supports one bill look stupid if they filibustered any of the others?

Because the only thing we need 60 votes for is cloture, after all.

I agree we have no control over Nelson, Bayh, Landrieu, and Loserman. But how are Snowe, Lincoln, Conrad, or Carper going to turn around and say the bill shouldn't even come to a vote on the Senate floor, if they've already voted for a fairly similar bill?

Posted by: rt42 | October 15, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Klein's observation is astute: the 60 votes are sometimes there. At present, there's more of a three party system present in the Senate, which makes prediction of outcomes (particularly intermediate outcomes, not necessarily final ones) different than usual.

If nothing more, it keeps matters interesting.

Posted by: rmgregory | October 15, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

On NealB1's comments, I think some of those give *would* threaten to filibuster and would be seen by the White House and Dem Leadership as being willing to back it up.

Lincoln very much wants to. She might not want to go it alone, but she knows her seat is at risk, doesn't see Obama as likely to help her win, doesn't expect to be primaried, so she will tac to the Right. Her thinking is almost certainly trying to find a Win With Any Outcome:

* get re-elected is great

* if not re-elected, she has made certain "people" happy and will be taken care of

I don't think it's too jaded to see that she thinks in such win-win terms. We've seen plenty of people leave Congress to make a mint. Out beloved Tom Daschele is largely selling his soul out for Big Health at this very moment. Lets be honest that for all he has done, it's a drop in the bucket compared to what Blanche can extract for Big Health and Big Energy in the remainder of her term, and what she already has extracted for her pals the Walton Family.

It's really hard for Obama to budge her from that because he's not offering her such a clear "win" as those two. His support in Ark means little to her, unless she was getting primaried.

The rest of them are likely looking for cover from Blanche. If she stays firm, they can express their concerns as well and use it to chip away at the bill.


Posted by: toshiaki | October 15, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Also, 40 Republicans are only relevant if support a filibuster unanimously. Individually, they are completely irrelevant and have nothing to say that anybody but Fox will bother to listen to. If one of them starts hinting he could be persuaded to vote for cloture, he suddenly becomes a real player.

Posted by: tl_houston | October 15, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Maybe I am naive, but I can not imagine any of the Democrats voting for the filibuster. Some may vote against the bill, fine...taking the position "this deserves an up or down vote, but as for me, I can not support it". Then all we need is 51 votes. What the heck am I missing?

Posted by: scott1959 | October 15, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

The thing is that HCR is extremely close to being wrapped up, it has some momentum as rt42 notes, Obama's ratings have improved, and .. the bill only needs 51 votes. 51, 51, 51, 51 ... 51.

The "optional" votes just need not to go along with a filibuster. I think that's a degree away from full support for the bill, so Obama/Reid should be bringing that fight to the "optional votes" and persuading them of the policy/political merits of not going along w/ a filibuster (of which there are many). They certainly shouldn't be letting these "optional votes" dictate how the bill is crafted.

Posted by: Chris_ | October 15, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Boy, NealB1 and srw3, you guys have way more faith in Nelson, Landieru & company than I do. The liberals have way more to lose in this fight (the whole bill) than conservative Dems do. Nebraska and Louisiana might REWARD their reps for defying Obama. Connecticut should be a different story, but Lieberman seems to be in his own little universe at this moment.

Posted by: Chris_O | October 15, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

There is at least a lever to use against Joe Lieberman. He is not a Democrat and has no right to be in the caucus or to hold any positions of power controlled by the caucus. This includes the chairmanship that he never uses. All that is required to control Joe is a leadership that is willing to put this lever to use. He is in quite a different position from recalcitrant Democrats.

Posted by: member5 | October 15, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

If you vote to filibuster progress on the core Democratic project of the last 50 years, you don't get to wear the team jersey.

How they vote on the legislation, that's fine, that's up to them-- but if they're procedural Democrats, they damned well vote D on procedural matters. That includes the now grossly-abused filibuster.

Posted by: adamiani | October 15, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

rmgregory and Chris_O: I just can't see democrats voting with the repiglicans on a cloture vote. Especially with the opt out provision which will let their own states opt out of the public option (if that makes it into the final bill).

If they do the unthinkable and vote against cloture, the rest of the caucus should get on their cases and make their lives in the senate a living hell. It's time to play hardball with these jokers. I think that each democratic senator should be put on the record about what should happen to senators that vote against cloture on health care. This after all is the media's job, but as usual they won't do it.

There are 58 Democrats and 2 independents that caucus with them in the senate. That makes 60 votes to end procedural obstruction by the MINORITY party. Who has the spine to make this point every day in the media until it is a mantra for democrats?

Posted by: srw3 | October 15, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

"Nebraska and Louisiana might REWARD their reps for defying Obama."

Unlikely. Safe democrats are safe for a reason. The "unsafe" Democrats would be the first to go should the GOP take advantage of the health care bill failing and win a bunch of seats.

It's unlikely Ben Nelson could then run against Obama/health care reform, claiming he's the one who scuttled it -- GOPers are too partisan to vote Dem, and the state Democratic Party and their members would be too pissed to vote him back in. Those not paying attention think "Bills passing = good. Bills not passing = bad." Nelson may try to use his leverage to get something that appeals to him, but he's not going to kill the thing.

That's why the onus should be on the wavering members to vote against the bill but against the filibuster; not on the huge core of bill supporters in Congress to cater to each of Ben Nelson's bad policy ideas in hopes he won't tacitly support a filibuster.

Posted by: Chris_ | October 15, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

In America, you form the coalition and then fight the election, the reverse of European parliamentary SOP.

Biden, Landrieu, etc, are our own private FDP.

Posted by: davis_x_machina | October 15, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Harkin says there are at least 52 votes for the Public Option. You put it in the bill. You put the bill on the floor. You see who filibusters. If anyone on your team supports the filibuster they immediately encounter a sh*tstorm of such magnitude that there is a tsunami warning in the Pacific. This is how it's done when the President wants to win.

The way this is playing out it seems instead like the White House decided the outcome long ago and they're just making up a storyline to explain it. If this is the case, I would love to know how they arrived at this decision.

Posted by: bmull | October 15, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Because everything Liberal Democrats want to do is incredibly wise? What? Are you crazy? If they weren't forced to compromise their blatant stupidity would be out in the open and they would be run out of town.

Posted by: fallsmeadjc | October 15, 2009 5:01 PM | Report abuse

So does anyone here know examples where Democrats filibuster their own party? On major bills, or minor bills?

Posted by: Ulium | October 15, 2009 5:11 PM | Report abuse

"Because everything Liberal Democrats want to do is incredibly wise? What? Are you crazy?"

No, but this is just politically stupid by Dems. Parties should have free reign to do what they want -- it increases accountability to voters (no shifting blame from Obama to Baucus, for example) and actually lets change happen out in the open.

This is how Great Britain does it and you don't see their government spiraling out of control. If the GOP was given free reign to do half the stuff they *say* they want (outlaw abortion, bomb Iran, repeal this or that program) they'd be out of a job pretty quick. It would instantly moderate their base. I welcome that, just as I welcome the Dems fully exercising the power they presently have.

Posted by: Chris_ | October 15, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse

A point made by several bloggers is this: No matter what, it doesn't make any sense to talk about a "Republican filibuster" as Harry Reid did. It's not mathematically possible. The only way there can be any filibuster is if it is a DEMOCRATIC filibuster -- of their own bill. I just can't believe it.

Posted by: durangodave | October 15, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

"It's unlikely Ben Nelson could then run against Obama/health care reform, claiming he's the one who scuttled it -- GOPers are too partisan to vote Dem"

I think that's rather disproven by the fact that he's in office in the first place. This is Nebraska we're talking about.

Posted by: Chris_O | October 15, 2009 7:34 PM | Report abuse

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