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In the Senate, it takes 60 votes to get a bathroom break

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill today that sets an April 2008 deadline for withdrawing (in theory) most combat troops from Iraq. The bill passed by a margin of 223-201.

In reality the bill would have little effect even if president Bush signed it, since it allows for troops necessary to protect the troops training the Iraqis, troops necessary to protect US facilities, including the Green Zone embassy, and troops necessary to fight terrorists. Since the administration would be in charge of deciding what numbers those requirements entail, and since the administration already says that everyone who is shooting at us is a terrorist, you can see how we’d need pretty much the same number of troops in April of next year, or possibly more if conditions deteriorate, as we’ve had there all along.

But that’s not what caught my eye in the San Francisco Chronicle story on the legislation and its chances for passage in the Senate.

Here’s what Chronicle writer Edward Epstein had to say about that.

The legislation sponsored by Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., is similar to a Senate proposal by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Jack Reed, D-R.I. Both proposals face a tough fight to gain the necessary 60 votes in the Senate, but the White House said Thursday that if either ever reached his desk, President Bush would veto it.

The Senate works just like the House: it requires a simple majority to pass a bill, 51 votes if everyone shows up. What Epstein is talking about is the number of votes necessary to end a filibuster and bring a bill up for a vote. Republicans have so routinely resorted to the filibuster that Epstein doesn’t even consider the possibility that they might allow a simple majority vote on the legislation. No: even getting to vote on a bill now requires the approval of everyone on the majority side plus ten Republicans.

And the worst part is that a filibuster, which once required actually holding the floor and talking non-stop, is now just a matter of announcing that you’re refusing to allow a vote.

They should at least have to work for it.

12 comments to In the Senate, it takes 60 votes to get a bathroom break

  • DallasNE

    It even gets worse. A bill to implement the remaining provisions of the Hart-Rudman Homeland Security bill previously passed both the House and Senate, where it got 64 votes. Because there are differences in the two bills it needs to go to a Conference Committee. Senate rules require a vote on joining that conference. Even though the original bill got 64 votes the Senate cannot now get the 60 votes to end the filibuster to join the Conference Committee.

    Obviously, the Republican game plan for the 2008 election is to show that Democrats can’t lead so you need to elect Republicans. It should be so easy to show that Republican obstructionism is at the core of the problem but we can’t count on that message getting out. MSM will conviently only point out the lack of progress, which is technically true, without pointing out the obstacles to that progress. The odds that the Democrats can pick up the 9 Senate seats to overcome the filibuster roadblock are next to zero. Plus, there are about 5 current Democratic Senators that sometimes support the Republican filibusters. Barring that crushing defeat, the next President will have a tough time getting his legislation passed as well.

  • That’s just bizarre, Dallas. Thanks for the civics lesson — I had no idea sending a bill to conference required a vote.

  • Joe

    But, it works both ways. A minority,if they care to do so, can block a funding bill that gives el jefe more rope to hang us. Likewise, it takes a majority doing an affirmative act to fund. This is the very point of the congressional power over military expenditures.

    The focus of some, who push comes to shove leave a bit to be desired (even Obama couldn’t come out early against the funding bill), on the 67 spins things badly.

    Also, if 56 … or whatever …per the Webb measure agrees to something and a minority blocks cloture, the Senate can keep up the debate continuously. Where is this continual pressure? It isn’t “well they blocked a measure the American public and a majority of even a blatantly unbalanced Senate supports, so oh well …” or nothing here.

    So, I’m not quite gung ho on this sort of thing.

  • Joe, I’m not opposed to the filibuster; I wish Democrats had used it more and to more effect when they were in the minority, particularly with respect to judiciary nominations.

    But it’s traditionally been the refuge of last resort; what startled me was Epstein’s presumption, or I guess recognition would be more accurate, that it has now become a matter of course. I’ve never read anything indicating that the Senate was created with the intention that it only pass legislation that has super-majority support. And if either party wants to make filibusters routine, they should be forced to put their mouths where their money is. And Dallas’s example of filibustering a motion to send legislation that has already passed to the conference committee … that’s just insane.

  • PubliusToo

    Well, call me old fashioned, but I like the way the Congress is divided into two houses with the Senate organized to slow down legislation. The system tempers the usually more populist sentiments of the House with the so-called deliberative process of the Senate. I think this is generally a good thing.

    I suppose if the Senate Majority Leader wanted to require continuous debate to sustain a filibuster, he could do so by extending the debate until either the filibuster or the session ended. I could be wrong, but I suspect that is a strategy the current Majority Leader had previously chosen not to employ for political reasons. Finally, I believe the “presumption” that 60 votes are needed to adopt any controversial legislation has been “recognized” for more than a generation. This is certainly not a recent phenomenon. Sometimes, I think we would all be much better off if Congress simply adjourned for the entire session, because less can be more, so to speak.

  • jonerik

    What ever happened to the “nuclear option”?
    Or is that something which only works to pack courts with right wing hacks and not to stop killing of innocent people?

  • I’m old-fashioned too, but I don’t see that there’s an invariable correlation between deliberation and filibustering, which with the current minority seems reflexive. Perhaps I’m wrong, but my recollection is that in the past forty years or so, filibusters were both relatively rare and aimed primarily at presidential appointments rather than at legislation. And I don’t think this legislation is remotely controversial, being as its favored by a super-majority of voters.

  • Joe

    One has to point to other eras where Congress was so evenly divided, and show me where this sort of thing just wasn’t done, esp. for matters of central importance. Surely, it was done to block civil rights legislation. Is not the occupation on that level of importance?

    Anyway, two things stand out for me. First, it need not only be a Republican device ala Dallas. I suggested the progressive caucus route. Likewise, if the Dems stood up to the Republicans, would the 60 votes stand firm? Who knows … I didn’t see them try.

    Second, Bush needs funding. It’s an affirmative act. Cries about filibusters doesn’t change that. The Dems do want to “fund the troops” … so fears that will be used against them is a failure of guts. As I said, some people I generally respect send that meme. Drives me nuts.

  • Joe

    I meant to say … will the forty+ votes needed to block stand firm.

  • I thought I had a breakout of filibusters by session, but I can’t find it. My impression is that Republicans have already filibustered as many times this Congress, which isn’t even half over, as Democrats did during the entire previous one. I also have the impression that filibusters are historically more common when the Senate is less evenly divided than when it’s more so. I know that Reid has called more cloture votes, but of course they’re not all tied to filibusters.

    Re: the funding, yes, that’s an intestinal problem. I think it goes beyond that, actually — I think the majority of Democrats don’t actually want to end our involvement in the war.

  • PubliusToo

    Let me preface my reply by noting that I am far from an expert on Sente procedures. The cloture votes are essentially the means for ending debate. If a bill (taking into account floor amendments) can muster 60 votes, then cloture is invoked effectively precluding any filibuster. The practice therefore is to require 60 votes to bring a bill to the floor for final passage. If a bill cannot garner 60 votes by a whip count, it is very unlikely ever to make it to the floor even for the purpose of a filibuster; effective Senate leaders generally are able to find a compromise when they want to accomplish something. For that reason, a filibuster is rare. Again, I am no expert, but I do believe that the Senators generally adhere to that practice regardless of the party then in power.

    With respect to the angst of democrats seeking to end American military involvement in Iraq’s insurrection (civil war?), I can only note that some of the democratic Members of Congress (the key swing votes) are hesitant to take more definitive action at this time presumably because of their constituents’ mixed feelings. Even though he is a lame duck, President Bush has very effectively maintained party discipline (though I suspect the 2008 congressional elections might break that party discipline). Consequently, the 60 votes required to invoke cloture have been very hard to find.

    Add to all that the fear of The White House’s public relations campaign challenging Members who fail to “support the troops” as being “weak against our enemies,” etc., as well as prominent republican Senators now running for the presidency who almost uniformly believe they must support the war to get the nomination, and it is easy to understand why the end of the war does not come quickly. Worse, most of the foreign policy experts seem to agree (for whatever their opinions may be worth) that Iraq will continue to deteriorate upon America’s withdrawal of troops and Iranian or Syrian influence may grow even stronger. Rightly or wrongly, therefore, any Member of Congress voting to remove the troops will likely be saddled with the blame for the attendant damage to U.S. security interests in the Middle East. The so-called moderate democrats are damned if they do and damend if they don’t. Thus the Congress is partially paralyzed from a lack of leadership and, even more to the point, from a lack of consensus.

    As I said in another message to Weldon a few days ago, the only thing worse than knowing the future is also knowing you cannot change it.

  • Robert Drozd

    Since when did the filibuster become just a matter of stating the party trying to block a vote wanted a filibuster? Since when did it become OK without standing on the floor and talking until the other side was forced to give up? Who is changing our laws without the general knowledge of the population?