The 60th Senator

[ Posted Tuesday, October 27th, 2009 – 16:35 UTC ]

The problem with having exactly the number of votes that you absolutely need in the Senate is that all it takes is one defector in order to upset the whole apple cart. This was true when the Senate was 50/50 (remember Jim Jeffords' aisle-jumping?), and is even more true now with a fragile supermajority of 60 senators who usually vote with the Democratic Party. Instead of "all for one, one for all" it quickly devolves into rampant prima-donna-ism, as senators realize that it all comes down to their lone vote. We've seen some of this play out already on the healthcare reform debate, but there's going to be more of it to come in the weeks ahead, so we should all get used to it for awhile.

Because Republicans -- more than at any time in the Senate's history, it bears pointing out -- have decided that absolutely nothing will get done without first winning a cloture vote (the lazy modern way the Senate "filibusters" these days). This means any bill must first get 60 votes before it can proceed. Sometimes it has to win repeated cloture votes, which is all-but-assured for the healthcare reform bill. Meaning getting 60 votes is crucial -- which every senator knows. So, if you appear reluctant, you get your face in the news, the Democrats will come begging to you for your vote, and generally you will be in the center of attention as the "will he or won't he" 60th vote.

Senator Joe Lieberman has jumped into the fray as an early contender for this center-ring attention. But it really could be any number of senators standing in this spotlight. "Senator Sixty" may, in the end, be named Landrieu (or Nelson, or Baucus) just as easily as Lieberman. So today's news that Lieberman might just vote with Republicans on a filibuster is not going to be the end of such stories, you can bet on that.

Getting 60 votes is tough to do. In the first place, there are only 58 Democrats in the Senate, and two Independents who caucus with them regularly. One of these Independents is none other than Senator Joe Lieberman. The other, Bernie Sanders, is a pretty solid vote (he used to officially be a "Socialist," but now merely calls himself an "Independent"), so his name likely won't be in the running for Senator Number 60.

There's even an outside chance that Democrats will only be able to muster 59 votes, even if everyone in their caucus gets on board. Senator Byrd of West Virginia is in poor health, and has missed many votes this year. But he is committed to healthcare reform, so one would assume that -- even if it required an ambulance and mobile medical team -- if Senator Byrd is still drawing breath and is conscious, he will make it to the Senate floor to vote. And if the worst should happen, West Virginia's laws allow the (Democratic) governor to quickly name a replacement, so the seat won't be empty for a crucial vote.

Olympia Snowe has also ridden a giant wave of attention for the past few months, as "Senator Bipartisan." She's been courted like crazy by Max Baucus and the White House, to say nothing of the media. She could even emerge as the 60th vote if a single Democrat bolts, so she may get a second turn in the spotlight. It's even conceivable (although somewhat of a stretch, I admit) that Snowe's fellow Maine Senator, Susan Collins, could wind up voting for healthcare reform as well. In this scenario, Democrats could lose two votes and still make it to 60, although (as I said) this scenario has some pretty long odds of happening.

But while Lieberman was obviously the quickest off the mark in the race for the media's attention, he will likely not be the last to enter the limelight in such a fashion. Because Democrats need every single vote in their caucus, it means that every single senator is "the most important vote." Any one defector could kill the bill. And they all know this.

Now, the normal way of handling this in Washington (because such situations are as common in D.C. as cherry blossoms in the spring) is to take the senator in question aside and bluntly ask: "Whaddya want?" Maybe it's a pet piece of legislation they've been trying to bring to a vote for years. Maybe it's a public works project in their state. Maybe it's getting a post office named after their mother. The "I want" list of each senator is different, and although public declarations of pure-hearted conscience-based stances will be many, in the end assuaging a senator's wants usually works.

Sometimes, of course, it doesn't work. In which case, leverage is brought to bear. And the stick can take as many different forms as the carrot can. The national party apparatus can threaten to not support a re-election bid -- no appearances by the president, no campaign cash, nothing. Rarely, this can even mean grooming a replacement by the party throwing its weight behind a primary challenger.

This would likely not work in Lieberman's case. The party split in a big way over his last election, and he lost his own party's primary -- but went on to win the general election anyway. So he's already been through that particular fire. And he's not up for re-election any time soon, and may even step down rather than run again -- making any campaign threats meaningless to him.

But there's another way to target Lieberman, and that is his powerful chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee in the Senate. Lieberman loves his perch on the chair of this committee, and threatening to take it away from him may indeed be a strong lever. Especially since the parties usually vote to shuffle around committee assignments in December, which is right around the corner. If Lieberman tanks healthcare reform for the year, look for him to be a very junior senator on whatever committee shreds the Democrats toss him at the end of the year, and certainly not sitting in any chairman's seat.

Because if Lieberman does manage to stop healthcare reform single-handedly, the rage from the Democratic voter base is going to be a white-hot blast furnace in Lieberman's direction. The big danger to stripping Lieberman's committee assignments in the past was that he might just take his bat and ball and go play with the Republicans. If he decided to caucus with Republicans, it would leave the Democrats permanently one vote shy of the magic number 60.

But, Democrats will reason, if Lieberman will not support the Democratic Party in crucial cloture votes such as on healthcare reform, then he's already caucusing with the Republicans -- so it really won't matter, because his vote simply cannot be counted on when it's needed. And so he certainly doesn't deserve a committee chair on a powerful committee, because that carrot isn't buying the Democratic Party anything in return anymore.

The Lieberman story will run its course, no matter what the outcome. But it is my guess that even if Lieberman is dragged back into the fold, that there are a few other senators who would also enjoy a little national media attention by appearing to be on the fence. Lieberman is currently out there dancing around whether he will be the Democrats' 60th senator or not. But he's not going to be the last one to occupy that particular spotlight before we're done. The only question in my mind is how many of the fence-sitters and mugwumps will take advantage of this opportunity to be a media darling for a few days. Or weeks.


-- Chris Weigant


12 Comments on “The 60th Senator”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    We the People need to remind Congress and certain Senators that they were elected to serve our interests and not those of big corporations.

    The media also needs to do its job and ask the tough questions when a senator says they can't or won't vote for a bill which includes a public option.

    There should be no positive benefit for a senator who refuses to vote for real health care reform - they should not be anyone's "darling" instead there should be real consequences such as loosing their senority and committee memberships.


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Instead of "all for one, one for all" it quickly devolves into rampant prima-donna-ism, as senators realize that it all comes down to their lone vote.

    I would ask EVERYONE to consider the very real possibility that there will be SOME who will vote against DunselCare because they honestly and truly believe that it is bad for our country and bad for Americans.

    Ya'all MUST allow for the possibility that our elected representatives who are going to vote against DunselCare do so based on the dictates of their conscience and their patriotism and not out of any sense of personal agendas.

    In other words, if ya'all are fair and objective, you MUST consider that someone CAN disagree with you and be as fervent and as passionate about it as ya'all are...

    If not, then I would respectfully submit that maybe it is THAT attitude that is part of the problem and NOT part of the solution.

    There should be no positive benefit for a senator who refuses to vote for real health care reform

    Let me know if you ever see "real health care reform"... Because what is being bandied about by the House and Senate is anything but...

    And THAT is a bona fide fact...


  3. [3] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Why did 60 votes become the de facto norm only after Democrats took office?

    1) Because Republicans defined it this way
    2) Because Democrats are too afraid to call them on it

    Why not call them on it and say things like, "we want a simple up or down vote"?

    Or send some legislation through that would make a filibuster look really bad?

    If they're going to be nothing but obstructionists, call them on it.

    Where's Rahm Emanuel ... I'm calling him right now!

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    Why not call them on it and say things like, "we want a simple up or down vote"?

    I do believe that the GOP said the same things when it was Democrats who were being obstructionists.

    Once again, it shows you can't tell Democrat from Republican without a score card... :D


  5. [5] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Yes. Exactly. Republicans set the stage to make it politically difficult for Democrats to filibuster or cloture votes. They coined the phrase "up or down vote".

    So maybe Democrats should say something like "Our democracy is based on majority rule. Last time I checked 51 is a majority. What Republicans want is minority rule."

    Then send bill after bill through and make them filibuster. Call their bluff!

  6. [6] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Here's some quotes from Republicans in 2005 ...

    "By resorting to filibustering judicial nominees who have the support of a majority of Senators, which began in 2003 by colleagues on the other side of the aisle, they are throwing overboard 214 years of Senate courtesy and tradition...The Constitution of the United States does not contain a word about filibusters. The Federalist Papers do not contain the word 'filibuster.' Rather, the Constitution lays out the standards for confirming judges. It does not require a 60-vote majority for confirmation. It requires a majority vote to confirm members of the Federal judiciary."
    [Senate Floor Speech, 5/19/05]

    "The United States Senate faces an unprecedented crisis brought on by the minority party. Judges who have been nominated by the President of the United States to the federal bench have been held up by a filibuster and cannot get a fair up-or-down vote. [...] I support a change in the rules of the Senate to allow for an up-or-down vote on judicial nominations. We must not let the minority party circumvent the Constitution, and take away the right of the President to have his judicial nominees voted on by a simple up-or-down vote." [, "The Duty To Vote Up-Or-Down," 5/29/05]

    And more at ...

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:


    I agree..

    I simply point out that, Democrat or Republican, they feel it is their DUTY to be obstructionist.

    In other words, you can't castigate Republicans for doing the same things that Democrats do.. :D


  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    But my original point is still valid.

    One cannot assume that a congress critter is being obstructionist simply for sake of an ulterior agenda.

    One MUST acknowledge the possibility that there might be real and valid reasons, beyond partisan politics, to oppose DunselCare.

    Let's face it. It is universally agreed that this healthcare reform is anything BUT reform.

    This being the case, why is it so hard to contemplate that there might be logical and valid reasons to oppose it??


  9. [9] 
    akadjian wrote:


    No one here is castigating Republicans. I have no idea where you're getting that.

    We've been down the health care road before so not going to rehash that. But it's good to know we both feel reform is needed. We just disagree on the public option. I recognize your opinion and respect it and so no one is saying your decision is based purely on politics. We just disagree. That's all.

    Cheers mate! Hope the launch happens soon for 'ya!

  10. [10] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Michale actually does have some data to support his claim, he just has tunnel-vision for a specific, and i think flawed, interpretation of the facts. As a group, journalists' personal opinions tend to be more liberal than conservative. But this view ignores the basic difference between personal bias and institutional bias.

    What makes Fox different is that it is very conservatively biased as an institution, while the main bias within News institutions is the bottom line. Except in opinion shows for whom Liberals are the target market, the need of News institutions to appear objective generally overrides the political beliefs of individual reporters. Tadlow Windsor put it more succinctly:

  11. [11] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    whoops, commented in wrong tab. that last one was supposed to be on the ftp99 post.

    The comment I intended to make on this post is that in recent history Republicans have always been better than Democrats at making their members toe the party line. So in this vote, who knows what any of them actually believe; they'd vote against anything obama regardless.

    Democrats, on the other hand, tend to vote secondarily with their personal beliefs, primarily with their campaign contributors. while the former is certainly possible, the latter is much, much, much more likely.

  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:


    The comment I intended to make on this post is that in recent history Republicans have always been better than Democrats at making their members toe the party line.

    Democrats, on the other hand, tend to vote secondarily with their personal beliefs, primarily with their campaign contributors. while the former is certainly possible, the latter is much, much, much more likely.

    I knew there was a reason I like you!! :D

    In other words, Republicans are the "Do As I Say, Not As I Do... OR ELSE!!!" political party, whereas the Democratic Party is the political party that can be bought..

    Which is why I find it easy to cast disdain upon BOTH parties... :D


Comments for this article are closed.