Lieberman Shows the Filibuster-Proof Majority to Be Nothing of the Sort

Senate Democrats responded to their potentially momentous acquisition of a 60th member on Tuesday by asking what the big deal is.

 “It’s not a real 60,” Majority Leader Harry Reid said just after Al Franken finally emerged as the winner in Minnesota’s drawn-out Senate race.

In a matter of hours, it became clear that Reid wasn’t just saying what he was supposed to say: As if on cue, Joe Lieberman used a health care forum in New Haven on Tuesday night to blast the “public option” at the heart of Barack Obama’s health care reform agenda.

“If we create a public option, the public is going to end up paying for it,” Connecticut’s junior senator decreed. “That’s a cost we can’t take on.”

So much for any Democratic hopes of using their 60 votes to kill a Republican filibuster and to push, as with Medicare four decades ago, a public option into law without a single G.O.P. vote. With Lieberman opposing it, it now won’t matter even if Democrats line up all 59 of their other votes for the public plan.

Not that those 59 other votes were locked up or anything. Howard Dean, who is heading a grass-roots effort to support the public plan, has been keeping a running tally of where senators and House members stand. As of Wednesday afternoon, only 37 Democratic senators were on board, with one—Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu—already against it. (The site apparently hadn’t been updated to account for Lieberman’s declaration.) No Republican senators are supporting the public option.

Add in the facts that two Democrats, Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd, are in questionable health and may not be available for key votes and that nearly two dozen Democrats—including numerous self-styled like Evan Bayh and Ben Nelson—are still on the fence and it quickly becomes apparent that Democrats will simply not have 60 votes for a public option, no matter what.

This is what life in the Senate will be like for Democrats, at least for the next year and a half. Already, some on the left are looking ahead to 2011, believing that the 2010 midterm elections will deliver an even larger Democratic majority. Then, with 62 or 63 votes, “the filibuster as a weapon of mass obstruction becomes a dull weapon indeed,” the Huffington Post’s Dan Sweeney wrote on Wednesday.

But that’s just wishful thinking. The exact same sentiments were expressed in 2007 and 2008—“Just wait till we get 60 votes in ’08!”—by the same progressive crowd, and it hasn’t panned out like they hoped. At 62 or 63 votes, if Democrats could even get there, the majority would simply be more unwieldy.

In terms of the current health care debate, then, there seem to be two realistic options for Democrats.

The easiest is the one the party’s base absolutely doesn’t want to discuss—giving up the public option and settling for a compromise. Lieberman is one of a bipartisan group of 15 or so senators seeking to craft compromise legislation. A plan without the public option, he indicated on Tuesday, would have a good chance of mustering his group’s support. With some Republicans on board, the holdout “centrist” Democrats would quickly come around and a watered-down reform package would then have no trouble passing.

But the left has good reason to bristle at this approach. A CBS News/New York Times poll two weeks ago found that 72 percent of Americans favor an option for a “government-administered health insurance plan like Medicare.” And philosophically, the difference between a plan with a public option and one without it is huge. To the left, bargaining the option would essentially defeat the point of overhauling the health care system.

The other approach for Democrats is one that Vermont’s Bernie Sanders is now pushing for. “I think the strategy should be to say to all 60 members of the Democratic caucus that even if you don't want a public plan in the final bill, you should commit to ending the Republican filibuster,” he told The Washington Post on Tuesday. This would allow senators like Lieberman and Landrieu to stay where they are on the actual public-option legislation while making sure the plan gets an up/down vote.

This is somewhat reminiscent of the “majority of the majority” approach that Dennis Hastert and the Republicans used when they ran the House earlier this decade. The idea was to completely cut Democrats out of the legislative process by establishing consensus within the G.O.P. conference and only bringing to the floor bills that a majority of Republicans supported. Republicans (sometimes) were free to vote their consciences but were expected to respect the majority view of their conference as the bill made its way to the floor.

The obvious flaw with Sanders’ suggestion is that the Senate isn’t the House. Senators view themselves as individuals with their own privileges and prerogatives. House backbenchers are far more anonymous and stand to lose far more by bucking their party on any important matter. So gaining procedural loyalty from all 60 Senate Democrats would be a long shot—especially when you consider that red-state senators like Nebraska’s Nelson relish winning headlines for bucking their national party leaders, believing that it bolsters their standing back home.

Harry Reid’s response to the magical 60th Democratic vote is right: So what?