Sixty votes for health care

December 21st, 2009 • No Comments →

With no votes to spare, HR 3590 — the Senate’s version of health care reform legislation — has passed the first of several crucial cloture votes. It is expected that the remaining procedural votes will pass with the same 60 senators voting aye.

Again, this isn’t the finish line. There are vast differences between this bill and HR 3200, the House’s reform bill, and they will be reconciled in knock-down, drag-out fashion in conference committee.

The official title of HR 3590 is “Service Members Home Ownership Tax Act of 2009.” But don’t be fooled; it’s the health care bill. GovTrack explains:

This is the Senate’s health care bill, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The Senate is co-opting this bill as a vehicle for passage of their reform and will change the text of this unrelated bill in whole in the coming weeks. They do this because the Constitution requires all revenue bills to start in the House, and their health reform plan involves revenue. So they have chosen to work off of a bill that started in the House, even if that bill is unrelated.

A bit of a parliamentary hack, wouldn’t you say? Until just now, the bill bore its original confusing title on this site. But I’ve just changed it to “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” the title that OpenCongress uses.

Martinez out, LeMieux in (and a few words on health care)

October 7th, 2009 • No Comments →

I’ve just added George LeMieux as the new junior senator from Florida. LeMieux replaces Mel Martinez, who abruptly announced his retirement from the Senate in August. LeMieux assumed office on September 10, so I’m quite late to the party, but luckily there have been no cloture votes since then.

What else? Well, the sound and fury around health care legislation underscores how the mere threat of filibuster can cast a shadow over legislative proceedings. The Senate Finance Committee has taken quite a long time to draft its own version of reform legislation, even though several other bills have existed for months. The stated reason is that the committee’s chairman, Max Baucus, assumed the responsibility of writing a bill that would get 60 votes in the Senate.

Now, people can argue over whether he ought to assume that 60 votes will be necessary for passage. Eons from now, when one of the many health care bills comes up for debate in the Senate, I think we’ll see a filibuster attempt. But even if we don’t, I think the proceedings will have demonstrated the power of the filibuster. It’s a menacing weapon for the minority to own, even if it stays holstered, and it affects the legislative process in ways that aren’t always reflected in the numbers on this site.

Some homework before we part company: educate yourself on conference committees. The House and Senate will be voting on two different health care bills; if both pass, it will fall to such a committee to normalize the differences between the two. As far as I can tell, the reports that come out of conference committees can themselves be filibustered — unless the original bill was passed under budget reconciliation rules.

Franken added — but will it matter?

July 16th, 2009 • No Comments →

I’ve just added Al Franken to the site as the junior senator from Minnesota. I’d been waiting for the Sunlight Labs Legislator API to do the work for me, but after nine days I just decided to do the necessary data compilation myself.

A lot of people are wondering what it’s going to mean now that the Democrats officially have the 60 senators needed for cloture. Sixty isn’t a magic number; it’s going to take a serious amount of work on Harry Reid’s part to hold together a vastly diverse caucus. Franken’s seating is significant in the sense that every little bit helps — but it’s not going to mark a fundamental power shift.

It’s silly to predict anything further. In a few months’ time, the statistics on this site will tell the tale, so let’s sit back and see what happens.

Specter now a Dem; vulnerable senators updated

May 6th, 2009 • No Comments →

I’ve made a couple changes to the data behind the site.

First — and past due — Arlen Specter is now properly listed as a Democrat. I was holding off on this change because it would’ve been weird to see a blue name atop the “Most Vulnerable Republicans” list.

Which brings me to the second change: the “Most Vulnerable” lists have been updated to reflect FiveThirtyEight’s latest rankings. Specter went from the most vulnerable Republican to the fifth most vulnerable Democrat. So I suppose that’s an improvement.

It may seem odd to see Tom Coburn’s name on the list, even at fifth; and I admit I think there’s no chance in hell he’ll lose his seat in 2010. Rather, Specter’s defection means I had to reach even further down the rankings to get another Republican.

Conventional wisdom is that 2010 won’t be great for the Republicans in the Senate. But if the Democrats do, in fact, gain even more seats in the midterm, it’ll come mostly from winning vacated seats rather than defeating incumbents. Out of the seven most vulnerable seats currently held by Republicans, at least four will be vacated by the incumbent, and perhaps as many as six. (Bunning is hinting at retirement, and Hutchison will likely run for governor of Texas.)

What does Specter’s switch mean for obstructionism?

April 28th, 2009 • 5 Comments →

The big news, only hours old, is that Arlen Specter will become a Democrat. Obviously this has implications for the balance of power in the Senate — though not as significantly so as in 2001 when Jim Jeffords switched from GOP to independent, thereby giving Democrats control of the Senate.

With Specter’s switch in mind, we’ve now got 59 Democrats and 40 Republicans in the Senate. Proclamations that the Democrats now have a filibuster-proof majority are, perhaps, a bit too eager.

There are only 99 senators

First, keep in mind that Al Franken has not yet been seated. A cloture motion needs three-fifths of all sworn-in senators to pass. Three-fifths of 99 is 59.4, which must be rounded up to 60. So even though the Senate is one member short, the cloture threshold remains the same.

Norm Coleman’s legal challenge of the election results will be heard before the Minnesota Supreme Court in early June, and if Coleman plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, it could be months upon months before Franken is seated.

Pay attention to how Specter’s switch affects the dynamics of that contest. Now that Coleman’s legal challenge is the only road block preventing a 60-seat Democratic caucus, I think two things will happen: more people will start to regard Coleman’s challenge as a game of “keep-away”; and more members of the GOP will want Coleman to treat his challenge that way.

Specter will vote however he pleases

Second, understand that Specter is not an automatic vote for cloture. I know this from today’s statement: “…I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture.” The Democrats have never been able to get every single member of their caucus to tow the party line, even on cloture; if they had, there’d be no Democrats on this site with non-zero obstruction rates.

Cloture and passage are different, at least in theory

Third, Specter’s statement reminds me of a distinction I’ve been meaning to illustrate. Consider this paragraph:

My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans. Unlike Senator Jeffords’ switch which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position on Employees Free Choice (Card Check) will not change.

Remember that a cloture motion doesn’t affect the outcome of a bill’s vote on passage. If you’re against a bill, it’s assumed you’ll vote against the motion to invoke cloture. And, yes, that’s usually the case, but not always. We saw that with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, passed this January; 72 senators voted for cloture, but only 61 voted for passage. 11 Republicans (among them John McCain, Mel Martinez, and Lamar Alexander) evidently felt the bill deserved an up-or-down vote, even though they disagreed with it.

Now, for hotly-debated issues like the Employee Free Choice Act, the lines are drawn far more clearly, and Specter knows this. If he voted for cloture even though he opposes the bill, fellow EFCA opposers wouldn’t cut him much slack for his nuanced stand, since the bill would end up getting passed.

I find this dilemma fascinating because I’m a huge dork. I’ll revisit it in a future post.

But, still, it’s a big deal

Anyway, I don’t want to detract from the significance of this event: it’s a huge blow for the GOP, who (at least after Franken gets seated) will have to hold their entire caucus together and pick off at least one Democrat in order to stall legislation. But consider this: we’ve had nine cloture votes so far in the 111th Congress and, unusually, all of them have passed. I think the minority will continue to go through the motions even when they don’t have the numbers.

Filibusted mentioned on NPR!

April 26th, 2009 • No Comments →

Various visitors (and my referral logs) tell me that Filibusted was mentioned on NPR on Friday. All Things Considered did a story on open government initiatives and talked to Sunlight Labs’ Clay Johnson. He name-dropped a few of the top performers in Apps for America, including Legistalker, Know Thy Congressman, and this site.


April 23rd, 2009 • 8 Comments →

Welcome to the blog. While hardly the centerpiece of this site, I think a weblog will be useful to provide occasional context and commentary on what’s going on in the U.S. Senate these days.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that Filibusted was recognized by Sunlight Labs’ “Apps for America” contest. The public sector has a long, long way to go toward being technologically clueful, but the Sunlight Foundation is doing amazing things to bridge that gap.

The late Molly Ivins often remarked how disheartening it was to observe the disconnect that most people feel between their daily lives and what happens in government. Why pay attention when you feel powerless?

But the APIs and data dumps provided by Sunlight Labs, GovTrack, the New York Times, and others are sowing the seeds for an entire crop of web apps that will bring citizens closer to their government, making it clear how much power individuals can have.