Who Counts On Cloture?

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While the guns of august rage at town halls throughout the country, pundits in Washington and staffers in Congress and the White House are busy counting heads to see if the object of all that fear and loathing, health care reform, has a shot at becoming law. The topic du jour is whether the Senate can overcome the 60 vote threshold of a cloture vote. Despite concerns among Democrats that they won’t be able to reach the 60 vote threshold to avoid a filibuster, very few Democrats have defected on cloture votes (the vote that bypasses a filibuster) so far this year.

This year, only eight Democrats have voted to support a filibuster. The most frequent supporters of filibusters among Democrats have been Sen. Russ Feingold and Sen. Kay Hagan. One of those Democrats, Sen. Arlen Specter, cast his only vote for filibuster when he previously caucused as a Republican. The other Democrats who have supported a filibuster this year include Sens. Harry Reid, Max Baucus, Evan Bayh, Robert Byrd and Claire McCaskill.

Only Sens. Feingold and Hagan have supported a filibuster three times. Sen. Hagan’s filibuster support comes from her attempt to protect a home state interest and the jobs it provides. Each of the three votes she cast in support of a filibuster were aimed at blocking the passage of a tobacco regulation bill. The North Carolina senator’s state is the home of R.J. Reynold’s, who opposed the legislation as an attempt to stifle market competition by their larger rival Altria (Philip Morris). Unlike Hagan, Feingold’s filibuster support has not come as a means to protect parochial interests. In one instance Feingold opposed the restriction on the number of amendments to be voted on and in two other instances the Wisconsin senator’s filibuster support came during consideration of two large spending bills. Feingold has long been an opponent of wasteful spending.

Some may be surprised to see the Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid on the list of filibustering Democrats. Senate procedures state that if the Majority Leader votes in favor of a filibuster he is reserved the right to bring the bill or nomination back up for a future vote. All of Reid’s filibuster support came on cloture votes that resulted in a successful filibuster.

Filibusted.us, the winner of the Sunlight Foundation’s Apps for America contest, provides data on all cloture votes and ranks senators by their likelihood of supporting a filibuster. This year there have been 22 cloture votes, only two of which resulted in filibusters. If Democrats are worried about overcoming a filibuster they may find solace that few of their members, even those who often defect on final votes on legislation, are willing to vote for a filibuster. Concerns about Republican support may be more worrying, particularly when considering the health of two key Democratic senators.

With the continued health issues suffered by Sens. Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd, Democrats may have to rely on one of the few Republicans who do not regularly support filibusters to reach the 60 vote cloture threshold. The only Republicans who have supported filibusters under 20% of the time are the two Maine senators Olympia Snowe (4.5%) and Susan Collins (13.6%) and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski (14.3%). Democrats seem to have pinned their hopes on Snowe, one of two Republican supporters of the stimulus legislation, to help move the health bill. She is seen as the only Republican senator participating in Sen. Max Baucus’ compromise discussions in the Senate Finance Committee who may ultimately support health care reform legislation.

Only recently has the filibuster become a persistent legislative obstacle to most legislation. Use of the filibuster, through a failure to pass a cloture vote, has been steadily on the rise for decades. The greatest increase has only been seen in between the previous two Congresses. The 110th Congress, the first Democratic-controlled Congress since 1994, saw a near doubling of both attempted filibusters and successful filibusters.

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  • walter zelman

    Seems to me that, historically, the concept behind unlimited debate and the need for a super-majority vote came from the Madisonian model which suggests that such rules would foster give and take and moderation and limit potentially rash majorities. Whether that is a good reason to hold on to such rules today may be debatable; one can certainly argue that the greater accountability that comes with a majority doing what it wants to and being held clearly accountable for it is at least as compelling a value.
    But, in any case, doesn’t the logic of the supermajority requirement weaken when it is clear that the minority is not just opposed to the legisation involved, but is politically intent on not allowing the majority and perhaps a president any measure of success. In today’s health debate the repuplicans are not interested in defeating reform because they don’t like it or want changes; they are clearly have different purposeses in mind.