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.
January 20, 2010; 2:39 PM ET
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