How To Leverage 60 Votes

Carl Hulse’s New York Times piece on the tenuous new Democratic super majority echoes many of the same points made by Sam Stein Tuesday at Huffington Post. The short and sad version is that a 60 vote majority is not the panacea that Democratic activists would hope for. For years, Harry Reid has told us that we really can’t get anything done with 60 votes. Now that we have it, Reid is punting again:

“We have 60 votes on paper,” Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, said Wednesday in an interview. “But we cannot bulldoze anybody; it doesn’t work that way. My caucus doesn’t allow it. And we have a very diverse group of senators philosophically. I am not this morning suddenly flexing my muscles.”

No one could have predicted!

Adding to the obvious fact that the reason Reid will not demand his caucus vote together in support of the President’s popular agenda (or to put it less politically, the agenda this progressive country supports) is that he and the overwhelming majority of Democratic senators simply do not believe in the same things as the Democratic base, there’s a larger hurdle here. We don’t actually have 60 votes now. Until this week, I’ve seen almost no reporting by traditional reporters, blogger-reporters, or bloggers about the fact that Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Robert Byrd are very sick and have not been able to vote or take part in this legislative session for weeks. Now that Franken has been seated, both Stein and Hulse make reference to the ill senators. This is the real structural problem confronting the caucus at the moment – even if you had Democrats in lock-step on any piece of legislation, you would still need two Republican votes to break a Republican filibuster.

That said, to move back to the realm of not where we really are at this instant but hopefully will be soon, Senator Sanders has proposed a great solution  to the problem of an ideologically diverse caucus that has 60 votes.

“I think that with Al Franken coming on board, you have effectively 60 Democrats in the caucus, 58 and two Independents,” Sanders said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “I think the strategy should be to say, it doesn’t take 60 votes to pass a piece of legislation. It takes 60 votes to stop a filibuster. I think the strategy should be that every Democrat, no matter whether or not they ultimately end up voting for the final bill, is to say we are going to vote together to stop a Republican filibuster. And if somebody who votes for that ends up saying, ‘I’m not gonna vote for this bill, it’s too radical, blah, blah, blah, that’s fine.'”

“I think the idea of going to conservative Republicans, who are essentially representing the insurance companies and the drug companies, and watering down this bill substantially, rather than demanding we get 60 votes to stop the filibuster, I think that is a very wrong political strategy,” Sanders added.

Sanders proposal is so obvious and sensible, it’s shocking that no one in the Democratic leadership has pushed for it. Caucus discipline does not need to extend to the vote on the actual legislation with this many votes. We only need it to break Republican filibusters of the Democratic agenda. Other than Joe Lieberman, every member of the Democratic Senate caucus campaigned in support of Barack Obama’s election to the White House. It is absurd to think that this caucus is not capable of coming together again to support broad Democratic change, as they did with Obama.

As of today, we still don’t have the votes we need because of Kennedy and Byrd’s absences, but some day soon that will change. And once it does, there is no reason why Harry Reid should not embrace Sander’s idea of caucus unity to overcome Republican obstructionism and total independence on the final vote. This move would not only allow great legislation to move forward faster, it would allow better legislation to move forward, as it would disempower Republican moderates from being the real arbiters of what goes into legislation (based around the reality that we currently need to buy their votes by making good bills worse). Sanders is giving Democrats a blueprint for how to come together as a caucus to leverage their 60 vote majority. It would be criminal if Harry Reid didn’t take his advice.

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