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Is 60 votes the loneliest number?

Mark Schmitt thinks that Democrats are lucky to be left with 59 votes in the Senate:

At the risk of seeming Pollyanna-ish, I want to make the case that having exactly 60 votes put Democrats -- and good policy -- in an excruciatingly vulnerable position. Of all the possible numbers of senators, between 51 and 100, that a party could have, 60 is arguably the worst. That is, there never was a "filibuster-proof Senate." Having exactly 60 votes made it a filibuster-dependent Senate.

Everything came down to a question of whether the party could break a filibuster -- and 90 percent of the time on big questions, with the single exception of a miraculous and not-final vote on health reform, the party would not be able to. With 60 votes, Democrats were expected to be able to get things done, and bloggers on the left could chide Max Baucus for wasting six weeks trying to negotiate with some Republicans on health care. Yet in the end, achieving anything would be entirely dependent on de facto co-presidents Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, one a genuinely malevolent force and the other just a hack, both of whom damaged the public perception of the health-care bill in significant ways. (Imagine the reception for a health bill that didn't include the poisonous payoff to Nebraska to buy Nelson's vote -- the strongest talking point the bill's opponents discovered -- and did include Medicare buy-in for those ages 55 to 64, which would have provided an immediate tangible benefit for the population that needs it most, but which Lieberman scuttled!)

Sixty votes not only put Lieberman and Nelson in charge, it meant that every little twist and turn in political life became the difference between total policy deadlock and historically breathtaking progress. A butterfly flaps its wings in Uruguay, and health reform survives or dies. Just as a few hundred votes in Minnesota created the 60-vote majority, a bizarrely incompetent candidate in Massachusetts took it away, but if it had not been that, it would have been something else. Consider the possibility of 92-year-old Robert C. Byrd being unable to vote but not resigning, to take only the most easily predictable event. There will always be unusual elections, flawed candidates, scandals, health problems, deaths (14 Democratic senators are 70 or older), odd retirements, not to mention senators who can't stick with the party because they face a tough reelection or because a bill affects their state in a particular way. (A Democrats-only 60-vote majority on cap-and-trade, for example, has never been plausible.) A supermajority so fragile is really no supermajority at all.

My only comment on this is, I think there's a good chance Olympia Snowe would have been on this bill if Democrats had only had 59 votes. Because they had 60, she had license to bolt. And having bolted, she can't really return.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 20, 2010; 2:39 PM ET
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Next: There's precedent for the House passing the Senate bill


Right on. Dems are back to how things were before Arlen Specter switched and allowed HCR to pass the Senate. In the mean time, the Democrats have won five special elections and have lost one.

All of this obviously means that the Democrats in the House must give up HCR immediately.

Posted by: Chris_ | January 20, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for this interesting and exciting column. I agree that courting that filibuster proof number made the Democrat's rely on that crutch. They are going to have to learn how to legislate and motor forward without the crutch now. We may find we walk better without it.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | January 20, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Schmitt is wrong. Having 60 Senators is not the worst, having 60 Senators and then losing 1 is. Just as you pointed out in your last sentence, Ezra, Snowe can't come back (hopefully we are both wrong). If the Democrats never had 60 votes to "rely" on, Snowe (or some other combinations of moderate Republicans) would have been dragged along the whole time and could still be around for post-healthcare bills. Now, every Republican Senator is all-in on the obstruction gamble. The bridge has been burnt. Let's hope that Harry Reid can swim because reconciliation road is a rough one.

Posted by: kkrahel | January 20, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Snowe? Please. We live in a parliamentary system where the undemocratic house (the Senate) has the vote of no confidence. At least the House of Lords is mostly ceremonial. It's pathetic, but this is the democracy we have chosen. We get what we deserve.

As for Schmitt, he's a smart cookie, but I just don't see how having fewer votes is ever a good thing.

Posted by: wcwhiner | January 20, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I liked Ezra's last point -- Robert Byrd, who can barely breathe, refuses to resign, making cloture votes dependent on his health care team. Had he resigned instead of running one more time, Dems might have held the seat -- which is less likely if he resigns now, or passes away.

And a good deal of blame belongs to...Ted Kennedy. Severely affected and effectively unable to participate in the Senate for several months, he nevertheless did not resign, pushing the replacement vote much later and making it harder for Dems. (That it would become harder was moderately predictable, but more important, an appropriate and noble resignation would have created a surge of goodwill everywhere to see a Senator behaving responsibly, for a change). All credit to Kennedy's career, but he too, simply couldn't give it up when the time came, to the detriment of the very issue he cared a great deal about.

Posted by: PQuincy | January 20, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I have long derived great comfort from the tendency of the American electorate to maintain the balance of power between the Dems and the Repubs by shifting with each election cycle. The fine tuned calibration went off track briefly with the seating of Al Franken. Fortunately, the ugly glimpse we got of one party rule was sufficient to impell the good citizens of Massachusetts to immediately recalibrate the checks and balances.

Posted by: bgmma50 | January 21, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

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