Monday, December 21, 2009

Cloture: President McCain Edition

Josh Marshall:
Huckabee compares Nelson to Judas at Omaha rally.
Josh Marshall (TPM): Voting Underway

1:10 AM: Voting on the first of three cloture votes over coming days just got underway.

1:13 AM: Lieberman, Aye, Lincoln, Aye

1:14 AM: Nelson of Nebraska, Aye

1:15 AM: Snowe, No

1:18 AM: Dems succeed on first of three cloture votes: 60-40.

For reasons tied to the murky parliamentary logic of the senate, this is the first of six votes. But the tick tock over from now to Thursday are basically just what the maximum delay Republicans can force under senate rules. That was the sixty votes the Dems needed. Let's be clear: this makes passage of the senate bill all but certain.

TPM's Brian Beutler is at the Capitol as I write getting comment from senators on the historic vote. We'll have more shortly.

Joe Sudbay, at 1:20 AM today: Democratics Senators end GOP filibuster on key amendment to health insurance bill
There was a major step forward for the health insurance bill working its way through the Senate. The Democratic caucus in Senate just voted for cloture on Majority Leader Harry Reid's "manager's amendment." This was considered the key vote after weeks of negotiations. Invoking a rarely used rule, Reid had the Senators vote from their desks as the roll was called.

The vote was 60 - 40. Every GOPer voted no.

The Senate will take two more cloture votes this week, spaced thirty hours apart (that's the period of time designated under Senate rules for "post-cloture" debate on the underlying question for which cloture was achieved.) So, we'll see another vote for the substitute amendment on Tuesday morning at around 7:00 a.m., then one on Wednesday afternoon at approximately 1:00 P.M. for the final bill. Both of those will need 60 votes. That will clear the way for final passage, which only needs 51 votes, should take place on Christmas Eve at around 7:00 PM.

That schedule is needed because the Republicans are using every obstructionist tactic provided by the archaic Senate rules to prevent the insurance bill's passage. All Republicans, even former President Olympia Snowe, are opposing the legislation at every step of the way. There were lots of speeches from Republicans today bemoaning the lack of bipartisanship. What a joke. Mitch McConnell had the gall to say that if Democrats weren't ashamed of this vote, they wouldn't have forced it in the middle of the night. Um, the reason the Democrats had to vote in the middle of the night was because of the GOP's tactical games. In his remarks, Harry Reid flat out said, "Everyone knows we're here at one o'clock in the morning because of my friends on the other side of the aisle."

We'll see Republicans getting crankier by the day. Keep an eye on John McCain. He's looking like he's going to blow his top.
John Cole:

The best part about a 1 am vote is that the average age of the Senate is about 132 years old, which means that they are all up about eight hours past when they are used to having a warm cup of milk and dreaming of Lawrence Welk reruns and the good old days before that rock and roll music and the internet tubes ruined everything, so their normally awful speaking style is worse than usual. Joy.

President McCain is speaking about majority will. Didn’t we see that last November?

James Fallows: David Axelrod: Go read your history!
Good for David Gregory. Just now, on Meet the Press, he asked David Axelrod whether the Senate's " 'majority' equals 60 votes" current operating rules made sense.

Not so good for David Axelrod. He immediately says, "These are time-honored rules."

Unt-uh. They are "time-honored" only in the sense of having been adopted awaaaaayyy-back at the dawn of time in 1975; and they have been of practical importance only really since the time of Bill Clinton -- and with a sharp increase in the last three or four years.

Can the chief political advisor at the White House really not know this about the filibuster? And if he knows the real story, why would he stick with this "time-honored" line? Either explanation is unsettling.

To round out your morning anti-filibuster ruling, below and after the jump a note from a reader in Maine:
"Right now, feels like we're all sitting at the racetrack, handicapping horses instead of governing our country. (Note disclaimer below.)We're treating the management of our national household like a sporting event. And I think the filibuster is at least partly to blame.

"Consider that 50% point -- the tipping point -- of making public policy in our democracy. It's shifted from the Senate to publicopinion polling. Look at how often the country sits there; evenly divided on the edge, in most recent elections and on many issues; how often we poll nearly 50/50 policy issues. It seems that the need for a supermajority in the Senate continually pulls the public to the tipping point.
"But it's a point of indecision, not of majority rule. And I don't believe it's what the founding fathers intended. It shifts our national discussion to the margins and to marginal issues instead of central problems. Not, "What should we do about climate change?" to "Is there climate change?" Not, "What should we do about economics reform?" but, "Should we do economic reform?"

"I can't help but wonder if, with only the need for 50% in the senate, citizens civil engagement would improve. Would less chance to derail things on the margins lead to more energy into policy development? Would citizens develop a more pragmatic view of what should be done because of the increased likeliness that something's going to be done? Would this help change our political discussions from horse-races of people (examples: Can Nancy get this through the House, will Olympia provide the extra vote? Why can't Obama get his agenda through Congress?) to the details of policy because some policy is more likely to be passed?

"I believe getting rid of the filibuster would, in the long run, make the country a more civil place by moving that tipping point back to our Senate.

"Disclaimer: My mother owns a race horse. Harness racing in Maine is like NASCAR before it was popular, but with chariots instead of cars and betting instead of breakdowns. Both, like our political and economic systems, have crashes."
Paul Krugman: A Dangerous Dysfunction

Unless some legislator pulls off a last-minute double-cross, health care reform will pass the Senate this week. Count me among those who consider this an awesome achievement. It’s a seriously flawed bill, we’ll spend years if not decades fixing it, but it’s nonetheless a huge step forward.

It was, however, a close-run thing. And the fact that it was such a close thing shows that the Senate — and, therefore, the U.S. government as a whole — has become ominously dysfunctional.

After all, Democrats won big last year, running on a platform that put health reform front and center. In any other advanced democracy this would have given them the mandate and the ability to make major changes. But the need for 60 votes to cut off Senate debate and end a filibuster — a requirement that appears nowhere in the Constitution, but is simply a self-imposed rule — turned what should have been a straightforward piece of legislating into a nail-biter. And it gave a handful of wavering senators extraordinary power to shape the bill.

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 — or, I’m tempted to say, any of it — if doing anything requires 60 votes in a deeply polarized Senate?

Some people will say that it has always been this way, and that we’ve managed so far. But it wasn’t always like this. Yes, there were filibusters in the past — most notably by segregationists trying to block civil rights legislation. But the modern system, in which the minority party uses the threat of a filibuster to block every bill it doesn’t like, is a recent creation.

The political scientist Barbara Sinclair has done the math. In the 1960s, she finds, “extended-debate-related problems” — threatened or actual filibusters — affected only 8 percent of major legislation. By the 1980s, that had risen to 27 percent. But after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006 and Republicans found themselves in the minority, it soared to 70 percent.

Some conservatives argue that the Senate’s rules didn’t stop former President George W. Bush from getting things done. But this is misleading, on two levels.

First, Bush-era Democrats weren’t nearly as determined to frustrate the majority party, at any cost, as Obama-era Republicans. Certainly, Democrats never did anything like what Republicans did last week: G.O.P. senators held up spending for the Defense Department — which was on the verge of running out of money — in an attempt to delay action on health care.

More important, however, Mr. Bush was a buy-now-pay-later president. He pushed through big tax cuts, but never tried to pass spending cuts to make up for the revenue loss. He rushed the nation into war, but never asked Congress to pay for it. He added an expensive drug benefit to Medicare, but left it completely unfunded. Yes, he had legislative victories; but he didn’t show that Congress can make hard choices and act responsibly, because he never asked it to.

So now that hard choices must be made, how can we reform the Senate to make such choices possible?

Back in the mid-1990s two senators — Tom Harkin and, believe it or not, Joe Lieberman — introduced a bill to reform Senate procedures. (Management wants me to make it clear that in my last column I wasn’t endorsing inappropriate threats against Mr. Lieberman.) Sixty votes would still be needed to end a filibuster at the beginning of debate, but if that vote failed, another vote could be held a couple of days later requiring only 57 senators, then another, and eventually a simple majority could end debate. Mr. Harkin says that he’s considering reintroducing that proposal, and he should.

But if such legislation is itself blocked by a filibuster — which it almost surely would be — reformers should turn to other options. Remember, the Constitution sets up the Senate as a body with majority — not supermajority — rule. So the rule of 60 can be changed. A Congressional Research Service report from 2005, when a Republican majority was threatening to abolish the filibuster so it could push through Bush judicial nominees, suggests several ways this could happen — for example, through a majority vote changing Senate rules on the first day of a new session.

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 — not unless you want the nation to sit motionless, with an effectively paralyzed government, waiting for financial, environmental and fiscal crises to strike.

DougJ: Fallows on the filibuster

This should be interesting:

But somehow it isn’t familiar, in the sense of being part of general understanding and mainstream coverage of issues like the health reform bill. Talk shows analyze exactly how the Administration can get to 60 votes; they don’t discuss where the 60-vote practice came from and what it has done to public life. I have a gigantic article coming out soon in the Atlantic—long even by our standards! but interesting!—which concerns America’s ability to address big public problems, compared in particular with China’s. The increasing dysfunction of public institutions, notably the Senate, is a big part of this story.

As I think my article will make clear, this isn’t a partisan question—even though in any given administration it presents itself as one. (For the record, I support the health-care plan and am glad the Administration found the 60 votes.) Also for the record, as the chart below shows, the huge increase in threatened filibusters came from the Republican minority, after the Democrats took back the Senate in 2007. Since the time covered by this chart, the number of threatened (Republican) filibusters has shot up even more dramatically. Still, whoever is in control, this is a more basic and dangerous threat to the ability of any elected American government to address the big issues of its time. And the paralysis of working through the legislature is all the worse because of the contrast with modern presidents’ de facto ability to make war-and-peace decisions essentially on their own.

It will take a lot of work to reform the filibuster. Villagers will defend it to the death (there’s a natural kinship there, as the Senate is perhaps the one community in the world that is clubbier than the Village) and Republicans will have a slick set of talking points on the issue.

May I humbly suggest that the filibuster is a more worthwhile target for hippie rage than Obama is?

Greg Sargent: Journalists Cheerfully Urinating On Senate Bill’s “Ideological” Critics

It would really be nice if certain Beltway journalists could get it into their heads that the Senate bill’s critics on the left have actual substantive differences with the bill’s proponents, and are not motivated solely by “ideology,” whatever the hell that means.

Ronald Brownstein, for one, is actually trying to claim that Howard Dean opposes the bill because he’s a “wine track” Democrat who doesn’t lack insurance and hence has the luxury to indulge in ideological struggles.

Brownstein writes that Dean and the “digital left” are able to “casually dismiss” the bill because “they operate in an environment where so few people need to worry about access to insurance.” He adds that for these critics, the debate is “largely an abstraction” and merely a crusade to “crush Republicans and ideologically cleanse the Democrats.”

Brownstein doesn’t meaningfully respond to any of Dean’s substantive policy objections to the bill. If he did, he could no longer claim Dean’s critique is purely “ideological.”

He’s not the only one making this claim. Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The Times today wrote that “ideology” is “smacking the pragmatic president in the face,” presumably meaning that the word “ideology” is a good catch-all for all criticism of the bill. And Joe Klein has dismissed critics for being in the grip of “ideological fetishes.”

People using this word need to explain what they mean by it. Anyone who actually reads criticism of the bill on sites like Firedoglake and DailyKos can immediately see that much of it is substantive and detailed. Agree or not, most critics are making a case against the bill as flawed policy that will have adverse real-world consequences. Why is it “ideological” to claim a mandate with inadequate subsidies risks forcing people to buy insurance they can’t afford?

Indeed, some serious proponents of the bill — Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias, Steve Benen, etc. — are largely refraining from such blithe dismissals of the bill’s critics. That’s because they understand that there’s a real and complex policy debate underway, and realize the best way to serve the bill is to actually rebut the critics.

I think proponents are making a strong case. And no question, it’s excessive when the kill-the-bill camp denounces them as insurance industry toadies or weak-willed enablers of Joe Lieberman. But surely the debate isn’t well served by reckless shouts of “ideology,” which reveal nothing but an unwillingness to engage the substance of foes’ criticism.

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