Filibusters and False Equivalence, From the Horses' Mouths

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Earlier today I mentioned the latest illustration of Sen. Mitch McConnell's GOP stopping an Obama jobs-bill proposal by threatening a filibuster. And the latest illustration of the press presenting this as the bill's "failure," rather than its being "blocked by filibuster."

This afternoon one of Sen. McConnell's staffers sent me this email:

You're right, the vote was 51-49. But remember, at least two of the Senators who voted to "proceed" to the bill, did so with the caveat that they opposed the bill itself. Just like the cloture vote on the full bill. It, too, got 51 votes to proceed, but a handful of Democrats said they would vote against the bill if the actual bill (not just a procedural vote) came to a vote. In other words, there is a majority opposed to the bill(s), even though there is a bare majority in favor of proceeding to the bills.

I wrote back saying, then why bother blocking the bill with a filibuster? Why not just let it come to a vote? The staffer replied:

We tried that. Sen. McConnell offered to take up the President's bill (either the original version or Sen. Reid's). Democrats objected--they don't want to take that vote and show that they have less than a majority.

So I called Sen. Harry Reid's office to ask, What about this? His spokesman, Adam Jentleson, said that McConnell's "offer" was "too cute by half." (Before you ask, I am using Jentleson's name because I called making a normal press query and asked if I could quote him. I haven't heard back yet from the McConnell staffer about whether I can use his name. The significant fact in his case is that this came from someone representing Sen. McConnell.) According to Jentleson, the Republicans were willing to allow an up-or-down vote on the merits only under special rules that would allow no adjustment or amendments to the bill. It would be a take-it-or-leave it choice, on a proposal they knew some Democrats had objections to.

"The way the Senate normally works is that you debate and negotiate and amend, in order to come up with something that can get 50 votes," Jentleson said. Fifty is what it would take for passage, with VP Biden able to cast the tie-breaking vote. But allowing the Senate to proceed to that normal negotiating process is what the GOP blocked by threat of filibuster. According to Jentleson, the Republicans agreed to a vote on the bill only in special circumstances that they knew would guarantee its failure. The normal give-and-take process that might have led to its passage is what they were determined to block, and did.

There you are. Judge which interpretation rings truer to you. And soon we'll go into the question of why the mere "threat" of filibuster has been allowed to convert the Senate into a chamber requiring a three-fifths majority to do anything, as opposed to the actual filibusters of yore. (The last example of a "real" filibuster may have been Sen. Bernie Sanders's day-long protest last year to the deal that extended the Bush tax cuts.)

Sometime soon we'll also look at why the unanimous letter favoring filibuster reform, signed by all returning Democratic Senators last year, just petered out.

And in case you've forgotten, routine use of the filibuster is not something enshrined in American history. As the chart below indicates, it's an invention of the past few years, which has made the American system of checks-and-balances into something none of the Founders contemplated. The huge spike up in the past few years coincides with the Republicans shifting to minority status five years ago and taking up the filibuster as their tool.

480px-Cloture_Voting,_United_States_Senate,_1947_to_2008.svg.png
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UPDATE
: I've just received a long reply from the McConnell staffer, which I append in its entirety after the jump. Again, judge for yourself.

The staffer for Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell writes (formatting and emphasis in the original):

It's a matter of record that he [Sen. McConnell] asked consent to vote on the bill. This, for example from October 4th on the Senate floor (the last line is the offer that Democrats objected to):

McConnell: "Mr. president, for three weeks President Obama not has been traveling around the country calling on congress to pass what he calls his jobs bill right away. Here's what he'll say in Texas today if he's not said it already: at least put this jobs bill up for a vote so the entire country knows exactly where every member of congress stands.

 

"Well, Mr. President, I agree with the President. I think he's entitled to a vote on his jobs bill. The suggestion that Senate Republicans are not interested in voting on his jobs bill is not true. I think he's entitled to a vote. It won't surprise anyone to know I don't think it's a good approach, a way that's likely to create jobs, but he's asked for a vote. And I think we ought to accommodate the President of the United States on a matter that he has been speaking about frequently over the last few weeks and give him his vote.

 

"In fact, they've been calling for this vote with great repetition. His press secretary said it on October 3, David Plouffe, the senior -- David Plouffe said the same thing September 27. David Axlerod, his top strategist called for us to have this vote on September 13. And the President himself, let me count the number of times, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve times the President of the United States over the last few weeks has called on us to have this vote as he put it, 'I want congress to pass this jobs bill right away.'

 

"Well, I hope that it will not pass because I don't think it's the right direction for the country to take to begin to deal with the joblessness issue but I do think the President makes an important point that he is entitled to a vote. So if I were to be given an opportunity by my good friend, the Majority Leader, to offer the President's jobs bill, which we think would be more accurately described as Stimulus Two, sort of a redux of the approach and the bill that we approved back in 2009 after which we've lost 1.7 million jobs. So therefore, I would ask consent to set aside the pending motion and amendments in order to offer the amendment which I have just described and hold in my hand at this moment."

 

And here is a sampling of Democrats' quotes opposed to the underlying bill:

 

Ø  Sen. Tester (D-Montana): "I can say that Jon is against the president's proposal," Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy says. (HOH Wins $100 From the Montana GOP, 9/21/2011)

Ø  Sen. Webb (D-VA): "Terrible," Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) told POLITICO when asked about the president's ideas for how to pay for the $450 billion price tag.("Hill Dems Pick Apart Obama Jobs Plan," Politico, 9/14/11)

Ø  Dan McLaughlin, Sen. Bill Nelson Spokesman: "But it also has some things he's even voted against before, like increasing income tax rates on people who make more than $200,000 a year... There'd probably be a better chance of something passing if the plan were broken down into smaller parts..." ("Bill Nelson Waiting For Final Jobs Package; GOP Foes Blast Him Now," Sunshine State News [FL], 10/4/11)

Ø  Sen. Mikulski (D-MD): "I disagree with the president." "Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat whose state includes some of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., said she didn't support the health-care tax. 'I disagree with the president,' she said."  ("Obama Plan To Tax Health Benefits Stirs Democratic Opposition," Bloomberg, 9/14/11)

Ø  Sen. Casey (D-PA): "I think the American people are very skeptical of big pieces of legislation ... For that reason alone I think we should break it up." ("Some Democrats Are Balking At Obama's Jobs Bill," The New York Times, 9/14/11)

Ø  Sen. Landrieu (D-LA): "That offset is not going to fly." ("Hill Dems Pick Apart Obama Jobs Plan," Politico, 9/14/11)

Ø  Sen. Begich (D-AK): "Frustrating ... There's an unfairness to it." ("Hill Dems Pick Apart Obama Jobs Plan," Politico, 9/14/11)

Ø  Sen. Manchin (D-WV): "I have serious questions about the level of spending that President Obama has proposed, as well as the actual effectiveness some of these policies will have when it comes to creating jobs..." ("Manchin's Strategy For Surviving 2012 In A Red State: Bash President Obama," The Hill, 9/14/11)

o   "Let me tell you the things that don't work, ok, if you want to know that - extending the unemployment tax cuts.  That's $240 billion.  We tried that last year and did not get the bump we should have gotten.  And also it puts a strain on Social Security. That's something we don't want to do." (Fox News, 9/16/11)

o    "'If spending money solved our crises, we would be okay,' Manchin said. 'When the President first spoke to Congress, I had some serious reservations. After we did a breakdown on the numbers, I was even more skeptical. At $450 billion, it is a tremendous cost, with a doubtful return on investment.' Manchin said he worries that the bill includes ideas that have been tried before and failed, at tremendous cost to taxpayers." ("Manchin Has Reservations On Obama's Jobs Bill," Williamson Daily News [WV] 9/18/11)

 


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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