Why Democrats need 60 votes in the Senate to breath safely

Friday, January 22, 2010

Recent victory of Scott Brown has sent a cold shiver down the spine of every Democrat who supported President Obama's signature health care bill. With his victory, Brown becomes the 41st Republican vote in the Senate, the upper house of American Congress, having total membership of 100. Now, why is this number, 41, so important for Republicans? Why democrats are apprehensive of safe passage of the health care bill? Why could it possibly shatter Obama's health care dream?

Checks and Balances, Filibuster
Congress of the United States is bicameral and the Senate sees itself as a check against the more-populist whims of the House of Representatives, i.e. the lower house of American Congress. The principle of Checks and Balances enshrined in the American constitution ensures certain degree of control of one branch of the government over the other (Executive, Legislature and Judiciary being three branches of the government). Since the Congress of the United States is bicameral, the Legislative branch of the government has a degree of self-checking. In United States, for a bill to become law, both the houses must agree upon the bill (and sort out the differences if any). [You may want to know, How a Bill Becomes a Law in USA. Read here or here]. The Senate has created long-standing rules that make it easier for its members to block bills. One of the most famous way is a filibuster, which means a senator can control the floor indefinitely to block a vote.

The Senate rules permit a senator, or a series of senators, to speak on the bill as long as they wish. This gives Republicans to go on debating health care bill indefinitely. However, this kind of marathon debate can be brought to an end if 3/5th  of the Senators (i.e. 60 out of 100 Senators "duly chosen and sworn") agree to end the debate. In parliamentary procedure, this process of bringing the debate to an end with the support of 3/5th members of the house is called Cloture. i.e. "if a minority of 40 senators refuses to stop talking, then you need 60 of them to invoke the rule that shuts the others up and allows the bill to come to vote. If you don't have 60 votes to break the filibuster, it doesn't matter if you have 50 votes to pass the bill."

Why Scott Brown's Victory is so crucial?
Thus, if Democrats wants to stop the debate and make way for safe passage of the health care bill, they need the support of at least 60 senators. Since the Senate has 57 Democrats, 41 Republicans and 2 independents, Democrats alone cannot ensure the end of health care debate in the Senate, even if they have the support of 2 independents. They still need one more Republican vote. This is where Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts - that was long held by a democrat, Edward M. Kennedy - has become crucial for Republicans and thrown the democrats into disarray.

It's not just for the health care bill, but Republicans can frustrate Obama by using filibuster for each and every other bill. Thus, delaying or blocking the bills altogether. May be this is the reason why Obama said that the country's institutions are not matching up to those sound values of American people.

The way ahead: Available alternatives for Obama
Democrats could try to convince a Republican (and 2 independents) to support their bill. Olympia Snowe, of Maine, did vote for a health reform bill in committee, but Republicans such as Utah's Orrin Hatch seem confident Snowe would oppose a final bill.

Another obvious possibility is Democrats could scale down the scope of the bill to try to garner Republican support.

In the worst case, Democrats "could try to use a relatively arcane rule called reconciliation that only requires 51 votes in the Senate, but only involves budget items. Leading Democrats are even confused on how this works and are now discussing the matter with their lawyers." [Read more about reconciliation procedure here].

In the most unlikely case, Democrats with their majority in the Senate can choose to do away with filibuster itself and then ensure a safe passage of the bill (57 democrates, which is 6 more than the majority of the house). But, current Senate rules state that 67 (2/3rd majority) votes are required for future rule changes. However, in 1892 Supreme Court of the United states ruled that, changes to Senate rules could however be achieved by a simple majority. Thus, the filibuster could be changed by majority (51 out of 100) vote(s), using the so-called Nuclear option, also called the "constitutional option" for political reasons and because of its roots in constitutional majoritarianism. However this may not be in the democratic interest of American people.

Whatever the case may be, Obama has a rough road ahead.

Further Reading:
  1. G.O.P. Senate Victory Stuns Democrats - NY Times.
  2. Cloture, Filibuster on wiki.
  3. Would a final reform bill need 60 votes?
  4. The 50-Vote Senate by Ezra Klein
  5. Dream Killer: How Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts will kill health reform.

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This work by Manjunath Singe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License. The views and opinions expressed in this work are strictly those of the author and do not represent his employer's views in anyway.