Debate Shows Limits of Power

In the Senate, 60 Is Still the Key

Posted February 9, 2009 at 6:16pm

In the Senate, the need for 60 votes still trumps a president with a 53 percent victory and about 70 million votes in the most recent election, as President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies have rediscovered in the fight over the economic stimulus bill.

Many Capitol Hill observers speculated that Congressional Republicans might show deference to Obama in the wake of his November victory and their sweeping defeats at the hands of the Democrats. But the Senate GOP Conference doesn’t appear to have changed tactics much from the previous Congress, when it numbered 49 and GOP leaders holstered considerable parliamentary power.

“The Senate is still the Senate, where consensus is required and consensus requires 60 votes,” a senior Democratic Senate aide said Monday. “This is not the bill we might have wanted, but it’s the bill we needed to get it out of the Senate.”

Senate approval of Obama’s signature legislation to address an economy in crisis is expected as early as today. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) moved Monday evening to cut off debate on the measure, doing so with the help of three Republicans who helped negotiate a version of the president’s bill that was more palatable to them and a block of conservative and moderate Democrats.

But even though the Senate Democratic Conference will ultimately offer unanimous support for the bill or something close to it, Reid discovered over the past 10 days that 58 Members — two votes shy of a filibuster-proof majority — aren’t enough to overpower the prerogatives of individual Senators nor to render irrelevant a much-diminished Republican minority of 41.

“It’s called America; it’s called speaking your mind. … This is what politics is all about,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), one of the Senate’s liberals and a strong supporter of the president. “There was no real disagreement with Barack Obama. But we exercised our prerogative — and I was with him 100 percent. … But we’re not a rubber stamp.”

Senate Republicans, including the moderates and the handful of Members who are not up for re-election and therefore not subject to the political pressure of GOP primary voters, remained remarkably unified throughout the debate over the stimulus bill. Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) have signed onto the revised stimulus legislation they helped write, but not against the wishes of their leaders.

Republican insiders on Capitol Hill said the GOP Conference didn’t set out to play hardball on the stimulus bill, as they recognized they are dealing with a new and popular president who is in the early days of his legislative honeymoon. Particularly on the issue of economic stimulus in the midst of millions of job losses, pushing hard against Obama’s bill to address this problem was not the strategy.

Then they read the bill, these sources said, while noting that it received not even one token Republican vote in the House. Republicans on and off the Hill assert that the poor quality of the legislation made choosing to strongly oppose it an easy option.

“Whether you call it obstruction or legislating, we’ve staked out a very popular position” with the public, said one senior GOP Senate aide. “There’s no way we should be able to oppose this.”

Another aspect of Senate life that appears set to remain — if the fight over Obama’s stimulus bill is any guide — is the partisan conflict over arcane parliamentary procedure. Whether in the minority or majority over the past decade under former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both the Democrats and the Republicans have used the Senate rules to maximize their leverage, and that looks to continue under Obama.

The Republicans used their ability to filibuster — at 41 Members, depending on the outcome of the delayed Minnesota Senate race, that is the minimum number of votes required for the maneuver — to force the Democrats to allow for an alternate, $780 billion stimulus bill to be considered. The Republicans who signed onto that measure, Collins, Snowe and Specter, had refused to break with their Conference to support the original $900 billion Senate measure.

However, the Republicans did not necessarily create as many procedural roadblocks for the Democrats as they might have.

Although Senate Republicans delayed passage of the bill, they have made a few concessions they might not have made in the 110th Congress. Those included agreeing on Friday to end the votes on GOP amendments, as well as allowing Reid to appoint Senators to the pending House-Senate conference committee without filing for cloture on those appointees.

The Democrats, meanwhile, used their majority to control how the bill wound its way through the Senate, and in doing so truncated the process, particularly for a bill of this size and scope. Reid did break with the practice of the previous two years and allowed the Republicans to have a vote on their amendments to the stimulus bill — 26 in all.

But that wasn’t enough to satisfy the Republicans.

“We never got a chance to shape [the bill]. The first chance we got on the bill was when it came to the Finance Committee. And, starting with the 15th amendment, [the Democrats] started asking us why we had so many amendments,” Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said. “Normally in committee we’d have time to revise and find some common ground. There’s no common ground that was found in this one except for the couple of people that bought into the end of the process.”