Friday, September 25, 2009

Will Democrats really support a Republican filibuster of health reform?

Olbermann and Howard Fineman discussed the need for Democrats to get 60 votes to shut off debate on the senate floor for health reform.

Fineman concluded that if the public option is included in the Senate Finance Committe bill, the Democrats "could lose" the support of two or three of their own senators.

Let's be clear about what we're talking about here.

No bill needs more than 51 votes for passage in the United States Senate. The 60-vote threshhold that has become the de facto standard for legislative success in the senate is merely what is needed to end debate on a measure and bring it up for a floor vote. It is, essentially, what is needed to overcome the threat of a filibuster.

Once upon a time, the Republicans insisted, and the news media agreed collectively, that every bill and every nominee deserved an up-or-down vote in the senate. This was when Republicans controlled congress and a Republican president was in the White House. The up-or-down vote narrative created the perception that any Democratic filibuster of a Republican legislative priority was nothing less than an affront to democracy.

That was then. This is now.

Now, the Republicans hold just 40 seats in a 100-member body that requires only a simple majority, 51 votes, to pass legislation.

In order to compensate for their lack of power in congress, the Republicans have begun rountinely issuing filibuster threats against Demcocratic legislative priorities. In fact, it has become so automatic that lawmakers and the news media assume now that any significant Democratic bill will be subjected to a filibuster. What was once considered an aberration has become the new normal. The Democratic majority is so cowed by this procedural tactic that they are willing to gut their own legislation pre-emptively to account for the likelihood of a Republican filibuster.

This would be pathetic even if the Democrats did not have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster threat.

But with the appointment of Paul Kirk to replace Ted Kennedy, the Democratic majority has the 60 votes it needs to beat back a filibuster and bring a strong health reform bill to a floor vote in the senate. With 60 votes, the Democrats can shut off debate and bring a bill containing a public option to the senate floor where it would pass by a comfortable margin.

The 60 votes are needed only for the routine act of ending debate and bringing a measure to the senate floor for a vote. Any senator who disagrees with the bill, Republican or Democrat, who disagrees with the bill would be free to vote "no."

When pundits like Howard Fineman warn that the Democrats "could lose" some of their own members by including real reform in the reform bill, what they are talking about is Democrats supporting a Republican filibuster against their own party's legislation. What does it even mean to be a member of a political party if you support the opposition's effort to keep your own side from even voting on its top priority?

This dynamic literally allows a 40-seat minority to control the process in a 100-member body that passes legislation by simple majority. It renders moot the results of the elections that handed the Democrats such an overwhelming majority in the first place. It is complete surrender. It is obscene.

The majority must begin to change this dynamic now. The Democrats should pass out of the Senate Finance Committee a health reform bill with a strong public option. The leadership should make it clear that any Democrat who doesn't like the bill is free to vote against it during final passage.

But they must make it equally clear that there will be severe consequences for any Democrat who supports a Republican filibuster.