Friday, January 26, 2007

Apologies to DailyKos and to Senator Reid

[N.B.: This is a cross-post from a DailyKos piece--but it can also as an apology to readers of this, my personal blog, as well...]

Yesterday I wrote a">recommended diary urging Majority Leader Reid to call the GOP bluff on their vote to deny cloture on the stand-alone minimum wage bill. With a good deal of support from this community, I challenged Senator Reid to force the Republicans to conduct a full-on, old-school Strom-Thurmond-style "read-the-phone-book" filibuster on the minimum wage bill. I argued that such an outcome would be a political coup for Democrats, even if the GOP gummed up the Senate works for an entire month or more.
Well, I was wrong--not, I believe, in the spirit of what I wrote, but because what I was urging is literally impossible according to Senate rules.
I was not aware of that when I wrote the diary--and judging from the number of recommenders who supported my position without argument, it appears that many of us need a little bit of education about the filibuster. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Big Tent Democrat to educate me (and a little bit of research on my own), I have realized where I went wrong and would like to offer my humble apologies to DailyKos and to Senator Reid.

The reason I was in error is simple: if there are enough minority votes to deny cloture, an old-school filibuster is unnecessary. Cloture (an end to debate) MUST take place before voting on a bill can begin. No ifs, ands or buts about it.
Thus, even if Harry Reid schedules nothing but debate on the stand-alone minimum wage bill for the entire day, no Republicans even need show up to debate or speechify. All they have to do is come back down to the Senate floor to vote against cloture when the cloture motion comes up. As BTD correctly pointed out, failure to do any other business in the Senate would amount to obstruction, ironically, by the Democratic Majority rather than the Republican Minority.
But if that's the case, one might ask, what were Strom Thurmond's filibusters all about? Why were they necessary then, and unnecessary now?
Good question. It's the same question I asked BTD.
The answer is twofold: 1) the Senate rules have been amended since Strom Thurmond's famous filibusters. But more important is reason number two: Strom Thurmond was filibustering the cloture vote--not the bill itself. The Senate had the votes for cloture (under its rules at the time), so Strom had to resort to lengthy speechifying on the Senate floor.
Want to learn a little more? Here's Shad Satterthwaite at
The House of Representatives has a Rules Committee that places a limit on debate when a bill goes to the floor. The Senate has no such committee. As a result, a bill is informally scheduled to come up on the Senate floor where debate can be endless. A filibuster occurs when a Senator engaged in debate refuses to yield the floor and thus prevents a roll call vote from taking place. The image of a Senator standing his ground on the Senate floor is epitomized by Jimmy Stewart with his performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Filibusters provide a minority of Senators a way to make their voices heard....
A filibuster can take place at several stages during the legislative process in the Senate. Before a bill is even introduced, a senator can place an anonymous hold on a bill through the majority or minority leaders. A hold is simply a threat to stage a filibuster if the bill comes up for a vote. A motion to bring up a bill can be filibustered. Amendments to a bill can be filibustered. Appointments to conference committees with House members to consider the bill can be filibustered. Conference committee reports on the bill can be filibustered.

Note what it did NOT say could be filibustered, however: the actual bill on the floor itself. Doesn't happen. Never has happened. You can filibuster amendments. You can filibuster the cloture vote. You can filibuster before it's introduced. But if you have the votes to deny cloture, you deny cloture. End of story.

Thus, if the minority has the votes to deny cloture, they can essentially kill the bill until they are given the compromise, tit-for-tat legislation they demand. If they believe that the American people don't want the bill being proffered by the Majority, they can literally refuse to EVER allow cloture on the bill--and the bill dies.

As BTD points out, that is why party discipline is so terribly important when you are the minority. The Dems, for example, should have had the votes to permanently deny cloture on the Medicare bill or the Bankruptcy Bill. But because we lacked party discipline from certain key members, we failed to deny cloture. Unfortunately, with regard to the minimum wage, the GOP has had greater party discipline than we have had in recent years.
However, the GOP knows that killing the minimum wage bill permanently would be politically disastrous, so they'll force a concession or two on tax breaks for Hiltons for allowing it to go to the President's desk. Disgusting? Yes. Surprising? No.

The key upshot? If we want not to be put in this position again, let's get some more Democratic Senators elected so we can get cloture more easily.
And there you have it. I was wrong; I unintentionally misled the community; I mistakenly impugned Harry Reid's courage.

Please accept my apologies. It is my hope, however, that we have all learned something about Senate workings in the process, and thus that some good can have come from the diary.

Cheers, and let's move on to the next fight.

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