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Max Baucus and The Supermajority Tilt-A-Whirl

September 30th, 2009 No comments

Has this ever happened to you?

Earlier tonight, I wanted to take the car to go to the gym. But I couldn’t go because my spouse had the car keys. Could I have asked him to just hand them over? Oh, I never thought of that; I guess, now that you mention it, that I did have the power to do that. But since I decided not to ask, I didn’t get to do what I really wanted to do.

This head-spinning absurdity is more or less the position taken by Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) yesterday in voting down the public option amendments proposed to the committee’s health care reform bill. In his words: “My job is to put together a bill that gets to sixty votes.” (Here’s a fuller statement.)

But the Democrats have 60 votes!! So,  what is Baucus saying? That he and/or other Democrats will defy their party’s leadership to the extent of voting against cloture, and thereby prevent a vote on the merits? Notice that he’s not saying that he’d vote against the bill on its merits, just that…well, he won’t be able to vote on the merits, because he will…not let himself do that.

The filibuster has become stranger and stranger, and now it threatens to strangle a public option that has clear public support, as well as the overwhelming approval of physicians (almost three-quarters favor either a public option or a single-payer system). Once upon a time, Senators who felt strongly enough about an issue to filibuster against it really had to…keep talking. Even casual students of history know of Strom “Pardon me for Fathering an Interracial Child While Opposing Desegregation” Thurmond’s legendary, 24-hour filibuster against a 1957 civil rights law.  In the category of “Things I Could Happily Have Died Without Knowing,” Thurmond visited a steam bath before taking to the floor, so as to render himself a dehydrated, urineless husk. No potty breaks allowed! Those were the days.

In recent times, though, the filibuster has changedfrom being a rarely invoked measure by a desperate minority to a routine exercise. Now, the majority party will  just give up if the other side has 41 votes against cloture. The filibuster bluff won’t be called. So the minority can, typically, block any legislation they disagree with — and without resorting to reading aloud from, say, the Minneapolis phone book.

Neither phantom nor real filibuster is possible, in theory, where the majority party has 60 seats. But now comes Baucus, tying the super-majority concept in a knot: Even though we Democrats have 60 votes, we won’t vote to cut off debate because…and here’s  what it comes down to: You need 60 votes in the Senate to pass anything.

Does anyone else see a maddening circle here? A reminder: To pass a law, you need a simple majority. If the Democrats stand firm, they have the 60 votes needed to defeat the threatened filibuster. Then, each Democrat can vote his or her conscience.

I’m guessing that Baucus, who fairly bristles with insurance lobby cash as he strides about the Capitol, doesn’t want to be put in the position of actually having to cast a vote that tests his commitments to his constituents against his loyalty to lobbyists. But his “60 vote” position is an inanity that should be called out. Let’s get the public option to the Senate floor and see who supports cloture. That will tell us what we need to know,  whether or not we ever get to vote on the merits.