Reprinted from Media Matters
If any big news organizations are looking for a way to prove their worth in the face of mounting public skepticism, I have a story for them. And it doesn't even require wading into boring policy details reporters hate so much. It's all about what's really important -- you know, process, and politics.
That probably sounds sarcastic, but this really is an important story. And it dovetails nicely with themes the media have long stressed: The importance of transparency and accountability, and the idea that 60 votes are needed to pass legislation in the Senate.
So, here goes: Some news organization struggling to stay relevant in an ever-changing world (and, really, aren't they all?) should ask all the members of the Senate whether they would vote to sustain a filibuster on health care reform legislation that includes a strong public option. They should report the results and keep a running tally. Their coverage of the health care debate going forward should reflect the premise that the cloture vote is what really matters -- a premise the media have been insisting upon all year. That means not making a big deal of a senator's stated opposition to reform (or to the public option) unless the senator indicates an intention to filibuster reform.
So far this year, news reports about the legislative prospects for health care reform have routinely stressed the need for 60 votes. That's reasonable enough, if Democrats choose not to pursue reform through the reconciliation process. (Though it does introduce a subtle anti-reform skew into the public discourse: by treating the filibuster as routine rather than the extraordinary measure it has historically been, the media make life easier for those trying to thwart reform.)
But when it comes to actually assessing the likelihood of getting those 60 votes, news reports have gone off the rails. They've treated opposition to a specific aspect of reform (the public option) as though it is synonymous with a willingness to not only vote against reform that contains that provision, but also with an intent to actually filibuster such legislation.
Take, for example, this Washington Post article from Wednesday:
A key Senate panel twice beat back efforts Tuesday to create a government-run insurance plan, dealing a crippling blow to the hopes of liberals seeking to expand the federal role in health coverage as a cornerstone of reform."
Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.) was one of three Democrats who voted no on both proposals. Baucus, who has emerged as the central player in shaping the bill, which is likely to be the main vehicle for debate on the Senate floor, said he supports the principle of a public option as an alternative to private insurance. But he warned that including it could doom the bill to a Republican filibuster.
"No one has been able to show me how we can count up to 60 votes with a public option," Baucus said. "I want a bill that can become law."
The Post article didn't mention a single senator who has so much as hinted at a willingness to filibuster health care reform that includes a public option. Not one. The paper portrayed the opposition of some senators to a public option as a "crippling blow" -- as though opposing a public option on a standalone vote is the same thing as intending to filibuster an entire reform package that contains the provision.
The two are quite obviously not the same thing. For one thing, senators vote for legislation containing specific provisions they oppose all the time. It's pretty much unavoidable, actually. That's quite obvious, so let's not dwell on it here.
The other reason they are not the same thing is that it is harder to vote against cloture than against passage. That is, in fact, implicit in the respective vote totals required. If weren't more difficult for a senator to vote to sustain a filibuster than to vote against passage, there would be no reason to have a cloture/filibuster process -- Senate rules would simply require 60 votes for passage.
All year, the media have focused on how much more difficult it is to invoke cloture than to muster a simple majority. And, in a way, it clearly is: You need 60 votes, not 50. But the other side of the coin has gone unnoticed. A bill's advocates may need to reach a higher number to invoke cloture, as opposed to passage, but the bill's opponents must convince senators to take extreme action in order to prevent cloture. That second point is particularly significant when -- as is currently the case -- one party's caucus contains at least 60 members.
In order to filibuster health care reform that includes a public option, the Republicans have to convince at least one member of the Democratic caucus to filibuster his or her own party's highest legislative priority. They have to convince at least one member of the Democratic caucus to filibuster legislation that enjoys strong and broad public support -- over a provision that would reduce the cost of the bill, something the most conservative Democratic senators say is a priority. They have to convince at least one member of the Democratic caucus to hand a Democratic president, and the Democratic Party, a significant political defeat heading into an election year.