60 votes or 51? The $848-billion question

WASHINGTON - JUNE 11:  U.S. Senate Majority Le...

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Today’s top headline, without a doubt, is the 60-39 U.S. Senate vote, strictly along party lines, to override a Republican attempt to filibuster and thus block a health care bill.

The vote means that the full Senate now will debate the $848-billion proposal, consider amendments to it and eventually vote it up or down. If the bill passes, it will go to a conference committee of the House and Senate to iron out differences between the two versions. Then comes a final vote.

This much I know. What I don’t know — and the news stories in The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, among others, do not tell me — is precisely what the process is from here.

The answer is incredibly important. Why?  Because whether the bill passes is as much a matter of math as policy. Will Democrats ever again have to muster 60 votes — the magic number needed to limit debate and break a filibuster?  Or will a simple majority carry the day from now on?

I had thought the answer was a simple majority. But bits and pieces in some news accounts I’ve scanned leave me confused. Here is one example from an article in Politico.com titled “How health care reform could fall apart:

“Right now, there is no public option plan that could garner 60 votes.”

Uh-huh. And why is it, after this vote breaks the filibuster, that Democrats would need 60 votes again?  I don’t know.

The Times, Journal and Post accounts sounded a common theme: That this vote is the beginning, that big differences still remain among Democrats and that ultimate passage is not assured.

Though the answer to my process question  is absolutely central to any intelligent analysis of the final vote, none of these papers addressed whether the Democrats will need to muster more than a simple majority in the future.

Why is that information so essential?  Because if Democrats need just 50 votes (with Vice-President Joseph Biden casting the tie-breaker), they can survive the defection of up to 10 votes and still pass health care reform.  In other words, it wouldn’t matter whether the half-dozen Democrats and independents who say they can’t accept the bill in its current form  ultimately vote for it or not.

If, however, th party still needs 60 votes, well, this IS still just the beginning. So what’s the answer?  Please, let me know when you find out.

At times during elections, I get frustrated by endless media analyses of process, of internal campaign polls and of infighting at the expense of issues that affect the American public. This time it is the process that’s getting short shrift.

The math is at least as important now as the debate about public options, proposed Medicare changes, wording about abortion and what not.

In the future, will the minimum need to pass health care be 60 votes or 50 plus Biden? The elite news media have failed their audiences badly by failing to provide the answer.


My thanks to Rick Ungar, True/Slant’s resident health care expert, for his clear and comprehensive explanation below in the comments. It solves the mystery. Though yesterday’s vote did bring the bill to the full Senate for debate, that debate in theory can last forever unless the Democrats can again muster 60 votes to cut it off.  That will prove the sticking point, not the ultimate vote on the bill.  Why aren’t reporters explaining this?  I’m left wondering whether some aren’t clear on this themselves. If they are, they’ve simply forgotten that their audience is not members of Congress but a whole lot of people straining to understand this process and this bill.


About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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11 Responses to 60 votes or 51? The $848-billion question

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Jerry Lanson - News Prints – 60 votes or 51? The $848-billion question - True/Slant -- Topsy.com

  2. gracenearing says:

    The elite news media have failed their audiences badly by failing to provide the answer.

    Watching the vote on cable news — flipping back and forth between CNN and FOX, I was appalled that the news desk jockeys were actually talking over the vote! And what were they babbling about? Nothing important, because as you point out, nobody was giving a definitive answer to the 60 versus 50+1 question.

    All that media clout, and nobody thought to get analysis from someone with knowledge of Senate parliamentary procedure.

  3. Jerry, I think John Dickerson, the political guy over at Slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2233718/), tried to answer this very question a few weeks ago.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      That pretty much sums it up. So how come The Post, Times, Journal and Politico couldn’t manage two paragraphs of intelligent context? Sheesh.

  4. Rick Ungar says:

    This is very much still the beginning!

    The vote yesterday was to bring the bill to the floor for debate. This is not the last procedural vote and, typically, the far less important vote.

    After the weeks to come of debate, negotiation, pay-offs to Democratic senators to buy their vote by giving them something they want, likely totally unrelated to health care, there will be another procedural vote.

    It will come when the Republicans refuse to end debate. There is no time limit of debate – it can, theoretically, go on forever.

    At the point where the Democrats think they have reached enough of an agreement amongst themselves, they will call for a vote on the bill.

    The Repubs will refuse to end debate. The Dems will then schedule a cloture vote. The cloture vote is the key. If 60 votes are cast to end debate, then the bill will go to a vote and the majority will win. If the Dems. cannot deliver 60 votes, then the GOP may continue the debate forever, thereby killing the bill.

    In the event the Senate can get to a majority vote on the bill, it still is not over. If a Senate bill is passed, it will go to a conference committee involving the Senate and the House to reconcile the inevitable differences between the two bills. When that process is completed, there will be one bill that will need to be re-submitted to the House and the Senate for passage or dismissal.

    Does that help?

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Jeff, Rick,
      Thanks very much. I knew there would be a clear answer. I also know a lot of people who are completely confused about this. While it’s embarrassingly to publicly trumpet my own ignorance, I still believe that the elite press has no business writing stories on its front pages without explaining what the heck the stories mean. Again, thanks both for your guidance.

  5. Jerry, I agree with you. There has been nothing in the daily newspapers or CNN or many major online sources that I’ve seen that have laid this all out clearly. I happened upon the Slate piece because I was looking for it. But it’s baffling why, especially with a 24-hour news cycle, more time isn’t given to this. Perhaps it has been and I’ve just missed in. Seems right up CNN John King’s alley to walk his viewers through this sort of thing.

  6. andylevinson says:

    Nice picture of crackhead reid looking down on the working men and women of America…..what is he thinking……..(I will destroy you?)

  7. rockyinlaw says:

    Good article. Good comments. Thanks, fellas.

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