Liberals Dream of Killing the Filibuster Before It Kills Health Care Reform

The threat of a Senate filibuster may be the greatest obstacle to passage

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Health care reform passed the House, but it still needs to pass the Senate. One controversial rule could make that difficult or impossible: the filibuster. Though the House passes legislation by a majority, the Senate needs 60 votes to break the threat of filibuster. Since Democrats hold 59 seats (plus Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman), a single lost vote can kill legislation. As health care reform legislation moves to the Senate, a number of moderate Senators have threatened to uphold a filibuster, prompting liberal pundits to think if there's any way around it. Could the dreaded filibuster be abolished outright?

  • Why Dems Must Abolish Chris Bowers argues that the political calculus should be crystal-clear to Democrats. "If Republicans make a net gain of three Senate seats or more in the 2010 elections (which is pretty likely according to current polling), Democrats will simply not be able to achieve cloture on any major legislation put before the Senate," he writes. "If only 51 votes are needed to pass legislation through the Senate, it would effectively be the same thing as Democrats gaining 10 seats in the Senate. No matter what political price Senate Democrats may face for the apparent hypocrisy or partisanship of destroying the filibuster, it can simply never equal to a net Senate gain of ten seats. We are just not going to lose ten Senate seats because we destroyed the filibuster."
  • Unconstitutional Filibuster The Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein insists Senators should disregard the filibuster. "There is nothing preordained about this wholesale disregard for majority rule. In fact, it violates the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution, which expressly delineates a limited number of instances in which anything other than a majority vote is required," he writes. "To get things started, it will be necessary to put Vice President Biden in his rightful constitutional place as presiding officer, where he should make clear he'll do whatever is necessary to restore majority rule to the Senate, even as he jealously protects the rights of the minority to blabber on as long as it wants and offer whatever amendments it thinks necessary. And if that means overturning some outmoded precedent laid down by some dead predecessor, so be it."
  • How To Do It Chris Bowers explains how to end the filibuster. "Get seven Democrats in the Senate to support eliminating the filibuster, even when Republicans are in the majority," Bowers writes, explaining that, once Republican retake the Senate majority, those seven Democrats could join them in voting to abolish. "Once we have seven Democratic Senators in support, they will collectively present a letter to the entire Democratic Senate caucus stating 'either destroy the filibuster now, or see it destroyed when Republicans are in charge.' At that point, I would hope that Democrats would respond by destroying the filibuster while they still have a majority. However, if we have to wait until Republicans are in charge, so be it."
  • Here Are Your Seven Daniel De Groot finds a 1995 initiative to kill the filibuster, which was supported by seven Democratic Senators still in office. "Ruling out Lieberman of course, that leaves 7 living Democratic Senators who have actually voted to significantly damage the power of the filibuster." This would provide the seven Senators needed for Bowers' plan. De Groot notes, ironically enough that the 1995 effort was spearheaded by Sen. Lieberman, who now threatens to support a filibuster against health care.
  • We Need An Anti-Filibuster Leader Matthew Yglesias asks where the leadership is. "Key elements of Senate procedure have been altered repeatedly throughout history and there have been failed efforts to do it that might have worked had folks been a bit more determined. What's missing right now is any sign from anyone politically important of any interest in turning up the heat," he writes. "But I've seen no sign of a serious public campaign of pressure from Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, or other leading figures to delegitimize this minoritarian obstruction."
  • The Case Against Abolishing Kyle Mathews makes it. "The flaws of the filibuster are well known, but eliminating it outright seems certain to fall victim to the Law of Unintended Consequences. Moreover, it would effectively end any and all checks and balances on majority power in the Congress. To break the power of the filibuster without giving dual-branch majorities carte blanche, including the power to ram through war authorizations and such."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.