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Leaders Press Case for Unity

Democrats Face Reality of 60

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sen. Ben Nelson, talking to reporters on Tuesday, is one of several Democratic moderates who leadership is hoping will vote with the Conference on key procedural votes.

Senate Democratic leaders have stepped up the pressure on their rank and file to unify on procedural votes after finally gaining a filibuster-proof majority, but centrists who have long been headaches for the leadership are so far refusing to commit to the strategy.

“Most Senators vote their conscience and they do what they think is right. They didn’t come here to be told what to do by somebody else,” moderate Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) said.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said Tuesday that he and Senate Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) will be asking the 60-member Democratic caucus to “stick together” on procedural votes that would allow the chamber to begin or end debate on legislation. Sixty votes are needed to close debate, or invoke cloture, on a measure and avoid a filibuster.

The message to Democrats, Durbin said, is: “Don’t let the Republicans filibuster us into failure. We want to succeed, and to succeed we need to stick together.”

Both parties have always put a premium on unity when it comes to procedural votes. The difference in the 111th Congress is that a unified Democratic Conference doesn’t necessarily need Republican support to succeed.

With 60 caucus members, Senate Democratic leaders are now under increased pressure to deliver big legislative wins on health care and climate change, largely because Republicans theoretically can no longer use the filibuster rules to prevent Democrats from passing major pieces of the agenda.

Plus, if Democrats fail to get cloture on health care reform, for example, the media blame game is unlikely to focus on wayward Republicans but rather on Democratic infighting and a lack of party unity.

Though Reid and other leading Democrats have downplayed the strength they have now that Sen. Al Franken (Minn.) has been sworn in as the 60th member of their caucus, Democrats said they want to capitalize on their numbers as much as possible and that procedural votes are their only hope for unity, given the disparate views of the Conference.

“Not everybody will be united on legislation, but maybe we can get everybody united on process and procedure,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide, who added that the goal is to unite the caucus on the general agenda if not the specifics.

But many Senate Democratic centrists remain leery of voting for any Democratic agenda item that could put them in jeopardy in their conservative-leaning states.

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