"Do or Do not. There is no try."

“Rejecting The 60-Vote Senate”: Vote Your Conscience On Merits Of Bills, Don’t Vote Against Allowing A Vote

In discussing the handful of senators—quite a few of them Democratic—who hold the fate of gun legislation in their hands, WaPo’s Greg Sargent makes a crucial point that is all too often forgotten:

it needs to be restated that these Senators have the option of voting Yes on breaking the filibuster, while voting No on the final vote. In that scenario, the proposal would likely pass with a simple majority. And so, if these Senators continue to hold out, they need to be pressed on whether they really think a proposal that has the support of eight in 10 Americans doesn’t deserve a straight up or down vote, at a time when the Newtown slayings have focused public attention on a problem that continues to claim the lives of thousands of Americans per year. Whatever their final vote, there’s no excuse for them to enable and participate in GOP obstructionism of a proposal with near universal public support.

Amen to that. But I’d go further, as I argued at The Democratic Strategist back in 2009

My personal feeling is that supporting a filibuster against your own party and your own party’s president should be treated as a serious and rare measure on major issues of conscience where the sacrifice of some of the prerogatives of seniority are a small price to pay. So maybe that price really should be paid. But at a minimum, the practice of thinking of cloture votes as identical to substantive votes, and tolerating defections on the former as just the same as the latter, needs to come to an end. There is no sixty-Senate-vote requirement for the enactment of regular legislation in the Constitution or in the Senate rules. We don’t need lockstep Democratic unity on policy initiatives. We just need unity on the simple matter of allowing the Senate to vote.

If we are not going to have genuine filibuster reform—and apparently we aren’t so long as Harry Reid is the Democratic leader in the Senate—then at least Reid and others, including the president, should begin making this distinction in every communication with or about senators on significant legislation: vote your conscience on the merits of bills, but don’t vote against allowing a vote, or there will be consequences.


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, April 16, 2013

April 17, 2013 Posted by | Gun Control, Politics | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quorum Calls: Giving ‘Do Nothing Congress’ New Meaning

Behold, the world’s greatest deliberative body.

At 9:36 a.m. on Thursday, a clerk with a practiced monotone read aloud the name of Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii). The chamber was nearly deserted. The senator wasn’t there. Not that she was really looking for him.

Instead, the clerk was beginning one of the Capitol’s most arcane rituals: the slow-motion roll calls that the Senate uses to bide time.

These procedures, called “quorum calls,” usually serve no other purpose than to fill up empty minutes on the Senate floor. They are so boring, so quiet that C-SPAN adds in classical music: otherwise, viewers might think their TV was broken.

This year — even as Washington lurches closer to a debt crisis — the Senate has spent a historic amount of time performing this time-killing ritual. Quorum calls have taken up about a third of its time since January, according to C-SPAN statistics: more than 17 eight-hour days’ worth of dead air.

When it comes to legislative action, 2009 and 2010 were an unusually busy period, with the Senate taking up some of the most consequential legislation in the generation. Maybe, the thinking goes, such an intense period of policymaking activity will inevitably be followed by a more relaxed schedule.

But the institution has gone from frantically busy to catatonic. One is tempted to hold a mirror to the Senate’s nose, just to make sure it’s still breathing.

David Fahrenthold’s explanation of quorum calls is helpful, albeit mildly soul-crushing.

A clerk reads out senators’ names slowly, sometimes waiting 10 minutes or more between them. But it’s usually a sham. The senators aren’t coming. Nobody expects them to. The ritual is a reaction to what the chamber has become: a very fancy place that senators, often, are too busy to visit.

This is what happened: Decades ago, senators didn’t have offices. They spent their days at their desks on the Senate floor. So clerks really needed to call the roll to see if a majority was ready for business.

Now, senators spend much of their time in committee rooms, offices and elsewhere. If no big vote is on the horizon, often nothing at all is happening on the Senate floor.

But Senate rules don’t allow for nothing to happen. That would require a formal adjournment, which would mean lots of time-consuming parliamentary rigmarole. Instead, the last senator to speak asks clerks to fill the time by calling the roll.

We’re not, by the way, talking about pro-forma sessions, intended to prevent presidential recess appointments. This is just the norm of the Senate most of the time, even during the course of its usual schedule.

Of course, senators could be doing something, at least in theory. The Democratic majority doesn’t bring bills to the floor, because they know Republicans will filibuster them (and even if they passed, the GOP-led House would never consider them). Dems could bring nominees to the floor, but Republicans won’t allow that, either. Dems could work on a budget, but they not only know the House won’t cooperate, but also know even trying would become fodder for attack ads.

“Why are we here?” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) asked. “The Senate is not operating the way it was designed, because politicians don’t want to be on record.”

Well, that’s partially true, but the Senate is also not operating the way it was designed because guys like Coburn filibuster everything that moves.

Regardless, let’s go ahead and retire “the world’s greatest deliberative body” description. No one appreciates the humor.


By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly-Political Animal, June 10, 2011

June 11, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Debt Crisis, Democracy, Democrats, GOP, Government, Lawmakers, Politics, Republicans, Senate | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brief Reconciliation Primer–Jonathan Chait: The New Republic


The health care debate is quickly going to focus on whether its passage entails some immoral act of partisan hardball or merely a common legislative procedure. Unfortunately, it seems that very few people understand the details of it well enough to form an opinion, and this includes reporters who cover it.

Senate Republicans collected quotes from 18 Senate Democrats expressing skepticism about using budget reconciliation to pass health care reform. The Hill reports skeptically on this claim, pointing out that many of the quotes are dated, and the Senators have since expressed openness to using reconciliation. But this response misses the deeper problem here: the Republicans are conflating two extremely different things.

Let me explain. Reconciliation is a legislative procedure for passing changes to the budget — taxes and spending — that only requires a majority in the Senate. Last year some Democrats pondered passing health care reform entirely through reconciliation. Critics pointed out that such a move could result in many of the crucial features of the bill being stricken by the Senate parliamentarian on grounds that they aren’t budget changes. (Say, insurance regulations would probably not be able to pass through reconciliation.) Ultimately, Democrats decided to go through the regular order, and they passed a health care bill through the Senate with 60 votes.

Now that they’ve lost the ability to break a filibuster, Democrats plan to have the House pass the Senate bill, and then use reconciliation to enact changes to the Senate bill demanded by the House. These changes — higher subsidy levels, different kinds of taxes to pay for them, nixing the Nebraska Medicaid deal — mainly involve taxes and spending. In other words, they’re exactly the kinds of policies that are well-suited for reconciliation.

It’s not just The Hill that misses the distinction, but the whole political media. Here’s Sunday’s New York Times:

Many Democrats in Congress said they doubted that it was feasible to pass a major health care bill with a parliamentary tool called reconciliation, which is used to speed adoption of budget and tax legislation. Reconciliation requires only 51 votes for passage in the Senate, but entails procedural and political risks.

Again, using reconciliation to patch up the Senate bill is a totally different thing than using it to pass an entire health care bill. I can understand why Republicans would treat them as identical — they’re spinning for partisan purposes. Reporters covering this issue have no good excuse.

Saturday February 20, 2010 3:04pm

February 21, 2010 Posted by | Health Reform | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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