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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Cloture and Party Unity

One of the more profound changes in American governance in recent years has been the normalization of the Senate filibuster–or, to be more precise, the threat of a Senate filibuster, since actual filibusters rarely occur. To make a very long story short, since 60 votes are needed to invoke cloture and cut off debate on any measure that doesn’t benefit from special rules (e.g., a budget reconciliation bill), a de facto 60-vote requirement has emerged for passage of legislation in the Senate. Hence, all the excitement about Al Franken becoming the 60th Democratic Senator.
In the train of this development has been a growing obsession with partisan ideological unity. If getting legislation through the Senate requires 60 votes, then no party can tolerate much in the way of defections. And by the same token, undecided senators in either party can exercise an enormous amount of power on close votes–as we saw when “centrist” Democratic and Republican senators reshaped the economic stimulus bill.
As J.P. Green noted a couple of days ago, there’s already a lot of agonizing going on about the relative willingness of Senate Democratic leaders to put the screws to “centrist” red-state Democrats on health care reform, including such specific measures as a strong public option. I say “agonizing” because many Democrats are loath to make demands on senators that could endanger their political careers, and because it’s often hard to know on any particular piece of legislation where to draw the line that separates party discipline from party bondage.
That’s why yesterday’s statement by Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin defining party discipline not in terms of support for the “public option” or cap-and-trade or any other substantive position, but in terms of unity on cloture votes, was potentially very significant if it represents the beginning of a serious and sustained effort. It serves as a reminder that 60 votes are not in fact required to enact legislation in the Senate, and that supporting cloture is not in fact the same as supporting passage of a given bill. Inversely, a vote against cloture is (except in the rare circumstances of a rushed Senate bill) a vote to do nothing–to obstruct any and all legislation in favor of the status quo. And unless I am missing something, no senator has ever been defeated for re-election solely on the basis of voting for cloture on a bill they intend ultimately to oppose.
Insisting on these forgotten facts day in and day out could have an effect, if only to undermine the sixty-votes-myth and force wavering Democratic senators to explain why heterodox views require them to obstruct any action on major challenges facing the country, as though their constituents pay any real attention to procedural votes (news flash: they don’t). That should be a given. The harder question is whether the next step should be to impose real sanctions on senators who rebel on cloture votes. 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.
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist

2 comments on “Cloture and Party Unity

  1. RobbUry on

    What are the compelling reasons for the Democrats to not force an actual filibuster? The Republicans seem to threaten filibuster over every Democrat bill that comes anywhere near a vote. There must be some very good reasons to not for the Republicans to actually stay on the floor and “debate”, though I can’t imagine what they are. Is it even possible to filibuster as many bills as they threaten to?
    Or the nukular option? When they were the minority, every time the Democrats even thought ‘filibuster’ the Republicans countered with the “Nuclear Option” threat. I haven’t heard that threat once since the majority changed hands.


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