Is there even a precedent for this sort of thing? We put that question to Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and also asked whether it would be accurate to look at this and say that funding for the military was being held hostage in a domestic political dispute.
"Let me put it this way. Strange things often happen at the end of congressional sessions, especially in the Senate," Mann said. "Those seeking to block action are even better positioned than usual. But I have never seen a Senate minority act in so unified and extreme (though ultimately unsuccessful) a fashion to deny the president a vote on his highest domestic priority. It is entirely accurate to say that troop-funding was being held hostage to a domestic political dispute. They gambled that a successful filibuster on the defense bill would force the Democrats to defer health reform until next year. They lost."
But what would have happened if there hadn't been 60 votes to cut off debate on the defense bill? Would defense spending have been held up? Mann said that in that case, Republicans would have ended their filibuster -- but only once it became clear that Democrats wouldn't be able to keep their Christmas-eve schedule on the health care bill. Another possibility could have been the use of short-term funding bills.
We asked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell whether it was appropriate to hold up passage of a defense bill as part of a domestic political battle. McConnell spokesperson Jennifer Morris directed us to this statement by McConnell at a Friday press conference: "Now, the defense bill will pass; it just won't pass as quickly as he [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] would like for it to pass. But he's in charge of the schedule. He's got the debt ceiling hanging out there. He's got the defense bill to pass. And he's trying to jam the American people on this mysterious bill that no one has seen before Christmas."
The Democratic National Committee has signaled that Dems could use this to political advantage in 2010, with a national cable TV ad: "Republicans are so desperate to block health reform and protect their special interest friends that they delayed funding for our men and women in uniform. Then they voted against it. Tell Republicans to stop playing politics with health care. And to stop playing politics with our troops."
Let's see whether this one sticks in 2010, and whether the Democrats keep it up as a political attack.
Late Update: I just spoke to Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and he also didn't know of any prior example like this: "I've never seen anything like that one before."
"I've just not seen, and you almost never see, filibusters used against uncontroversial items to use as leverage against controversial items. It's one thing to filibuster an issue straight up. It's some other thing to use it in this way," said Ornstein.
"The caveat to that is, we've often seen instances where you're right at the end of the year and there's must-pass legislation, and individual Senators will hold them up as hostages to get things done," said Ornstein. "A pet issue or a state thing -- but a party to use a filibuster in this way, it's not anything I've seen."