Dems to Revisit Party Unity Against Filibusters When Massachusetts Appoints 60th Senator

September 21, 2009 2:48 p.m.

If you’re keeping score on the question of passing health care reforms as part of a filibuster-proof budget reconciliation bill, then you know that Democratic leaders in the Senate see it as an absolute last resort; and you know that if they go there, then they don’t plan to test the limits of Senate rules along the way. The latter means that the reforms themselves would be subject to a number of arcane procedural tricks that could leave the legislation with some serious holes in it, and Democrats would either have to fill those holes separately, in a regular bill, or cross their fingers and hope things work out OK in the end anyhow. Meanwhile, liberal activists are pretty miffed that Democrats aren’t at least threatening to use the process as aggressively as they can, and that’s both widening the inter-party rift and leaving the party’s legislative efforts without much support from the base.

That way lies the potential for a number of problems, both within the fractured Democratic coalition and for the substance of reform itself.

But if and when the governor of Massachusetts appoints a temporary replacement for Ted Kennedy, there will suddenly be a simpler and more elegant way around this impasse. That is, if only Democrats can stay united against a GOP health care filibuster.

Even if this meant passing a purely partisan bill, this would be the Democrats’ preference. “We can get more done through a 60 vote bill than through reconciliation,” says a Senate Democratic leadership aide.After Arlen Specter switched parties, but before Ted Kennedy passed away, this idea had gained traction among liberals and party leaders alike. Behind the scenes, Democrats were pressuring the conservatives in their party to stand united on procedural votes. And in public, progressives–most notably Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)–were making the case to the base.

Of course, the strategy’s always been a tough sell to the Ben Nelsons and Mary Landrieus of the party, who would be giving up much of their leverage by agreeing in advance to vote for cloture on a health care bill. But reformers and party leaders are in agreement on the the idea, and it’s in some ways such a no-brainer that, once Massachusetts acts, it will get a second look.

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