Thursday, July 9, 2009


Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told his colleagues yesterday, "Don't let the Republicans filibuster us into failure. We want to succeed, and to succeed, we need to stick together."

It sounds like a pretty simple, common sense concept. The electorate has given Democrats a chance to govern, and expect them to deliver. Members of the caucus "may vote against final passage on a bill," Durbin said, but like-minded colleagues should at least reject the idea of "allowing the filibuster to stop the whole Senate." He concluded, "We ought to control our own agenda."

Some "centrist" Dems don't see it that way.

Evan Bayh, a moderate from Indiana, said he would not be inclined to vote to cut off a filibuster on a bill if he opposed the substance of the underlying measure, and he predicted his colleagues would feel the same way.

"Most senators aren't sheep," he said. "They don't just go blindly along without thinking about things, and I don't think we want them to do that."

It's hard to overstate how absurd this is. If legislation Bayh doesn't like comes to the floor, he can vote against it. Before that, he can offer amendments, give speeches, and encourage others to agree with him. Senators, as he noted, aren't sheep. Some bills may enjoy the party's support, but not everyone in the party will see the issue the same way.

But that's not what Bayh is arguing here. He's saying he's inclined to help the failed, discredited minority block the Senate from even giving bills a vote in the first place. It's not enough for Bayh to vote with Republicans on key issues, he wants to help the GOP ensure there is no vote.

I'm reminded once again of remarks by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who noted last week that senators in the Democratic caucus should feel free to vote for or against any bill, but being a member of the caucus should, at a minimum, mean opposition to Republican obstructionism: "I think the strategy should be that every Democrat, no matter whether or not they ultimately end up voting for the final bill, is to say we are going to vote together to stop a Republican filibuster."

The bottom line is, Bayh is arguing that he may occasionally want to help members of the other party abuse procedural tactics to block the agenda of his own party. "No" isn't enough for him. "No vote" is.

hilzoy: Cloture Votes

Yesterday, Sen. Durbin said this about Senate Democrats and the filibuster:

"If they will stick with us on the procedural votes, we at least know that we can move forward," he said of his Democratic colleagues. "They may vote against final passage on a bill, they may vote with Republicans on an amendment. That's entirely their right to do. But this idea of allowing the filibuster to stop the whole Senate. ... We ought to control our own agenda."

Ed Kilgore adds:

"Yesterday's statement by Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin defining party discipline not in terms of support for the "public option" or cap-and-trade or any other substantive position, but in terms of unity on cloture votes, was potentially very significant if it represents the beginning of a serious and sustained effort. It serves as a reminder that 60 votes are not in fact required to enact legislation in the Senate, and that supporting cloture is not in fact the same as supporting passage of a given bill. Inversely, a vote against cloture is (except in the rare circumstances of a rushed Senate bill) a vote to do nothing--to obstruct any and all legislation in favor of the status quo. And unless I am missing something, no senator has ever been defeated for re-election solely on the basis of voting for cloture on a bill they intend ultimately to oppose.

Insisting on these forgotten facts day in and day out could have an effect, if only to undermine the sixty-votes-myth and force wavering Democratic senators to explain why heterodox views require them to obstruct any action on major challenges facing the country, as though their constituents pay any real attention to procedural votes (news flash: they don't). That should be a given. The harder question is whether the next step should be to impose real sanctions on senators who rebel on cloture votes. My personal feeling is that supporting a filibuster against your own party and your own party's president should be treated as a serious and rare measure on major issues of conscience where the sacrifice of some of the prerogatives of seniority are a small price to pay. So maybe that price really should be paid. But at a minimum, the practice of thinking of cloture votes as identical to substantive votes, and tolerating defections on the former as just the same as the latter, needs to come to an end. There is no sixty-Senate-vote requirement for the enactment of regular legislation in the Constitution or in the Senate rules. We don't need lockstep Democratic unity on policy initiatives. We just need unity on the simple matter of allowing the Senate to vote."

I agree completely. It's one thing to vote against something, and quite another to vote against the proposition that a majority should be able to determine whether or not it passes in the Senate. There are rare occasions when I could see doing that. (I would have filibustered the Iraq war, for instance.) But voting to sustain a filibuster ought to be very serious, and wholly different from simply not supporting a bill.

Democrats ought at least to be able to insist that their members should not obstruct the agenda that the party as a whole has embraced. Absent some very compelling reason, voting to sustain a filibuster on any important piece of Democratic legislation ought to be seen not just as a way of not supporting a bill, but as undermining both the Democratic Party and the Senate as a body. And it should be punished. When Senators vote to sustain a filibuster of a bill that's a Democratic priority, they should absolutely lose seniority.

I, for one, will certainly be taking names, and remembering them when Democrats who filibuster their own party run for reelection. We should not allow it to become routine that 60 votes are required to pass anything of substance in the Senate. With sixty votes in the Senate, we have the power to prevent it.

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