Why are Democrats talking about filibusters?

Despite the Democrats' Senate super-majority, some in the party are already hinting they'd support filibusters

Published July 8, 2009 5:01PM (EDT)

At least one Republican rushed to embrace Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., now that he has finally taken his seat in the U.S. Senate. But in the past week, many leading Democrats have seemed to go out of their way to quell any suggestion that the Democrats' 60-seat majority in the Senate will lead to the party actually pushing through their agenda.

As just one notable example, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently said that he can't "dictate how people vote" in the Democratic Senate caucus and that "We have 60 votes on paper ... But we cannot bulldoze anybody."

Needless to say, progressives hoping to see healthcare and climate change reform legislation passed by Congress this year were less than heartened by Reid's comments. But the majority leader may have been right in asserting that there's a difference between having the numbers on paper and truly having a cohesive governing majority, especially with his two most senior members -- Sens. Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy -- often missing votes due to illness. Plus, some centrist Senate Democrats have now gone on record to say they could conceivably support filibusters that would prevent proposed legislation from receiving an up-or-down vote.

Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind. have all said they won't rule out voting in favor of a Republican filibuster. Landrieu said, “I’m going to keep an open mind, but I am not committing to any procedural straitjackets one way or another." Nelson agreed, adding, "I’m not a closed mind on cloture, but if it’s an abuse of procedure, if it’s somebody trying to put a poison pill into a bill, or if it’s something that would be pre-emptive of Nebraska law, or something that rises to extraordinary circumstances, then I’ve always reserved the right to vote against cloture."

And Bayh was even more clear cut in defending the use of a filibuster for any legislation with which he disagrees and suggested his colleagues felt the same way. “Most senators aren’t sheep,” Bayh said. “They don’t just go blindly along without thinking about things, and I don’t think we want them to do that.”

It's one thing to vote against one's party on a given piece of legislation; it's another thing entirely to not even allow your party to vote on the proposed bill. Reid remains confident that he'll be able to ward Democrats off from filibustering, saying, "On procedural votes, we’ll keep Democrats together.” But the statements by Landrieu, Nelson and Bayh serve as a reminder that despite the Democrat's super majority in the Senate, the outcome of the party's most progressive proposals could rest in the hands of a few centrist Senators.

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

MORE FROM Vincent Rossmeier

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Ben Nelson D-neb. Democratic Party Evan Bayh D-ind. Harry Reid Mary Landrieu