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In Senate votes, 60 is the new 50

Among the passengers at New York's Penn Station yesterday struggling to get back to Washington after the massive snow storm were me and my friend Scott -- and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). But Schumer's situation was rather more urgent than ours: He had to get back to cast a vote for the Senate's health-care reform bill. When Amtrak canceled our noon train, Schumer, sitting next to me in the lounge, worked his omnipresent cell phone in an effort to devise a Plan B. And last I saw him, he was in the sea of humanity trying to squeeze onto train 145. Scott and I got to D.C. around 5. And I assume Schumer made it ahead of the 1 a.m. cloture vote, because it passed by the bare minimum: 60 to 40.

With a 60-vote majority, the Democrats ought to be able to pass whatever they want in the Senate. But they can't. The 60-vote rule makes everything the Senate does a demolition derby of narcissism and special pleading. E.J. Dionne today focuses on the impact it's had on health care legislation.

In a normal democracy, such majorities would work their will, a law would pass, and champagne corks would pop. But everyone must get it through their heads that thanks to the bizarre habits of the Senate, we are no longer a normal democracy. Because of a front of Republican obstruction and the ludicrous idea that all legislation requires a supermajority of 60 votes, power has passed from the majority to tiny minorities, sometimes minorities of one.

Worse, more influence in this system flows to those willing to kill a bill than to those who most devoutly want to pass one. The paradox in this case is that senators who care most passionately about extending health coverage to 31 million Americans have the least power.

On "Mika's Must-Read Op-Eds" on "Morning Joe," Mika Brezinzski highlighted Paul Krugman's piece in the New York Times today on what he calls "A Dangerous Dysfunction."

Nobody should meddle lightly with long-established parliamentary procedure. But our current situation is unprecedented: America is caught between severe problems that must be addressed and a minority party determined to block action on every front. Doing nothing is not an option ā€” not unless you want the nation to sit motionless, with an effectively paralyzed government, waiting for financial, environmental and fiscal crises to strike.

This was the nut graph for me in the Krugman piece:

Now consider what lies ahead. We need fundamental financial reform. We need to deal with climate change. We need to deal with our long-run budget deficit. What are the chances that we can do all that ā€” or, Iā€™m tempted to say, any of it ā€” if doing anything requires 60 votes in a deeply polarized Senate?

But we still have to get the health-care legislation passed. A final vote on the Senate bill is set for Christmas Eve. Then it goes to the House-Senate conference committee, where the battle will only get more pitched. But Dionne dispenses some advice that petulant progressives should heed.

Instead of trying to derail the process, which is exactly what conservative opponents want to do, those on the left dissatisfied with the Senate bill should focus their efforts over the next few weeks on getting as many fixes into it as they can. And then they can do something else: Start organizing for the next health-care fight. Enactment of a single bill will not mark the end of the struggle. It will open a series of new opportunities. It's a lot easier to improve a system premised on the idea that everyone should have health coverage than to create such a system in the first place. Better to take a victory and build on it -- to accept this plan as a "starter home," in Sen. Tom Harkin's apt metaphor --than to label victory as defeat.

By Jonathan Capehart  | December 21, 2009; 8:59 AM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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Listen to the liberals cry.

Even with a 60% majority in the Senate they have found that not all Democrats (and a majority of Americans) agree with the liberal agenda being jammed down America's throat.

The answer? Change the rules, of course.
(Except in the case of a Republican majority, one assumes.)

Posted by: spamsux1 | December 21, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Lyndon Johnson would have never let this happen.

Posted by: gary4books | December 21, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Republicans have demonstrated repeatedly that they cannot govern. They don't believe in government and prove it everyday.

Republicans are ONLY interested in their Party and not in America (or average Americans)so we can safely ignore them.

The GOP has become actively harmful and the carnage that surrounds us is a result of conservative governance - and ALL Americans know this to be true...

Don't know why they think their behavior will win them votes, NO ONE that voted for change will again support the Party that keeps saying and doing the same things that got us into these messes...

Delusional, dangerous and sad.

Posted by: russcarter1 | December 21, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Last time I checked the United States of America was a REPUBLIC, not a democracy. That's why the pledge of allegiance says "... to the REPUBLIC for which it stands." Even in many democracies simple majorities don't carry the day. There is good reason for this, most of the time it's a bad idea to allow a simple majority to rule.

Posted by: duane4 | December 21, 2009 10:15 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, Mr. Capehart demonstrates a lack of knowledge of history and American Govt. The fillibuster/cloture has been around a long time, once used by the US House, but in the US Senate since the early 1800s, and once required 67 votes to be broken. It was Democrats, who when they had a 60/61 seat majority, and likely in reaction to the contested election in NH, created the 60-vote rule in 1975. And, of course, Democrats and Republicans and third parties have used the fillibuster/ cloture many times over the years.

There is an obvious, but seldom used way to break a filibuster - compromise, something this Administration campaigned on, calling it bipartisanship. Start over and write legislation that will pull people from both parties. If "majority rules" is what matters, than a bill that is supported, for example, by 25 Repubs and 35 Dems, a majority of both parties as well as the 60 votes needed for cloture, will provide that majority.

Posted by: marlendale | December 22, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

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