Saturday, January 12, 2008

Where All Good Bills Go to Die (60 or bust)

The House begins the Second Session of the 11oth Congress on Monday; the Senate comes back the following week, just in time for the State of the Union (that would be the equivalent of the Super Bowl for political folks). Much attention has been paid to the House and its accomplishments, and its historic first-ever woman Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and it will continue to be a focus as all those nervous freshment Democrats angle to become sophmores come November. But to my mind, the House is in good shape. For those of you looking for more progressive changes, keep your eyes on the legislative prize -- the Senate. And, more specifically -- the number 60.

Here's the scoop. Right now, the Senate is split very narrowly -- 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and 2 Independents (Sens. Bernie Sanders [VT] and Joe Lieberman [CT]) who caucus with the Dems, giving them the slimmest of majorities -- especially given the fact that Lieberman is presidential wannabe John McCain's new best friend and appears to also be at the top of the White House Christmas list. Just ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) how easy its been trying to herd these 51 cats. Getting a simple majority is a minor miracle.

But in the Senate, it's typically not about a simple majority -- if only that were the case! It's all about cloture -- it's all about 60. That's because the Senate is a body of continuous debate -- and made up of 100 very, very important people who like to talk. A lot. Constantly. Even if the room is empty. In order to move to a final vote, the Senate literally must agree to shut up -- to stop talking. This is called a cloture vote, and to be successful it must win a super majority of 60 votes -- it's such a big deal to get senators to agree to stop talking, a simple majority won't do. I call it the "shut up already and vote" vote. That means anytime the Democrats want to do anything, they need to find 9 Republicans to agree. A bathroom break. Turkey or chicken for lunch. The sky is blue. Never mind the presidential vetoes leveled in their direction, the Senate has not been able to get to 60 on a lot of things that matter. Cloture is a longstanding part of procedure, and not likely to go anywhere. Oh, and technically, when a cloture vote fails, that issue is now being filibustered -- they might not roll in cots and read from the Betty Crocker Cookbook on the Senate floor, it won't look like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but in function it's a filibuster -- the issue is blocked.

So the election this fall is all about 60. The Dems want to get closer to 60, and the Republicans --who would like to take the majority back (in their dreams) -- at the very least want to keep the Dems as far away from 60 as possible. This is going to be a tall order. Here's why. There are 35 Senate seats up in November. Usually there are 33, but this time around there are two special elections. The first is in Mississippi in response to the happy retirement of Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) in late December 2007, who seems to have resigned just in time to ensure he only has to wait out the revolving door prohibiting lobbying by former members of Congress for one year -- instead of the newly required two years he'd have faced starting Jan. 1, 2008. The second special is set for Wyoming, and the much less timely passing of Sen. Craig Thomas (R-WY) this past June, may he rest in peace. Anyway, of the 35 seats up, the Republicans have 23 seats to defend -- which will take a lot more money in an environment where its been tough to come by (being in the minority sucks, doesn't it guys?). To make the picture even more bleak for the Republicans, several senior senators have decided to call it quits -- seats that would likely have been surefire holds that are now in danger of going blue. Either way, the Republicans will have to spend money defending seats they hadn't counted on.

The Senate -- and the country -- are losing statesmen like Sens. John Warner (R-VA) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE), as well as old bulls like Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Wayne Allard (R-CO). Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) is also supposed to be calling it quits, but that's another blog. All but the Idaho seat are in serious play for the Dems, and the Dems also have no retirements to worry about and fewer seats to defend. Hey, girls CAN do math and I can see the negatives here. And this equation doesn't even factor in other tight races where moderate Republicans like Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) are sweating bullets, or where red-type guys who never should have won a blue state in the first place are running scared -- like Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN).

So anyway, the Dems have a good shot at getting closer to 60... they won't likely hit the magic number, but they could get close enough that life could get a lot better for Majority Leader Reid and all the rest of us, especially if a Dem manages not to self destruct and takes the White House. This would be a welcome change, so the Senate would hopefully stop being the great black hole where all good bills go to die.

1 comment:

majestic said...

Great summary about a rule in the senate that most americans don't even know about. Keep up the insightful commentary Zaftig!