Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The US Senate: Where All Good Bills Go To Die

Much attention has been paid to the House and its accomplishments, and its historic first-ever woman Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). But to my mind, the House is in generally good shape -- except for some pesky Blue Dogs,of course. For those of you looking for more progressive changes -- health insurance reform, energy bills, immigration reform, improving No Child Left Behind, pay equity advances -- keep your eyes on the real legislative prize: the Senate. And, more specifically -- the number 60.

Here's the scoop. Right now, the Senate is split -- 58 Democrats, 40 Republicans, and 2 Independents (Sens. Bernie Sanders [VT] and Joe Lieberman [CT]) who caucus with the Democrats. Now, on the surface that might seem golden -- for all intents and purposes, there are 60 votes in the Democratic column. But, remember, this is Washington, DC -- where alternate realities often rule. Just ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) how easy its been trying to herd these 60 cats. Getting a simple majority of 51 votes 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. Even better if there are balloons, cameras and small children.

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. That means anytime the Democrats want to do anything, they all need to agree. With Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) in poor health, Sen. Joe Lieberman being his usual pain-in-the-ass self, and conservative Blue-Dog-ish Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE), Evan Bayh (D-IN), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Blanche Lambert Lincoln (D-AR), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Kent Conrad (D-ND), and Kay Hagan (D-NC) -- to name a few -- getting to 60 is not only not guaranteed, it's damn near impossible. As a result, the Democratic "Majority" tend to need a few Republicans. It's why Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are now the homecoming queens at everyone's football game. The Republicans are busy keeping them in line -- when before they kinda ignored and ostracized them, calling them RINOs (Republicans in name only). Meanwhile, the Democrats are busy courting them -- and often giving in to their sometimes ridiculous demands (witness the extraordinary power Collins had over the ARRA/recovery bill, and the sway Snowe has had over healthcare reform).

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. This is why the Senate has become obstruction central -- the great black hole where all good bills go to die.

Copyright 2009 (text only). The Zaftig Redhead. All Rights Reserved.

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