Buoyed by news of a temporary replacement for the late Senator Ted Kennedy, Senate Democratic leaders are launching a renewed effort to get all 60 members of their caucus -- even those who might eventually vote against health care legislation -- to at least commit to blocking a Republican filibuster.
After that, the bill itself could win passage with only a simple majority.
Proponents of the strategy say it is being actively discussed both on Capitol Hill and within the White House -- "every day," said one Democrat who is actively involved with both branches when it comes to passing health care legislation. "That's the whole conversation. At the end of the day we don't need them to vote for the bill. We need to get them to get to cloture to end the debate."
As former DNC Chair Howard Dean summarized: "If you are a member of the Democratic Party you have an obligation... to vote with the party on procedural issue. I would expect that regardless of what Senators think they about the public option, they should be there for cloture."
On the Hill, Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-VT) has been one of the chief proponents of the commit-to-cloture strategy. And increasingly, senior aides say, he is getting the backing of the party's leadership.
"I think there is growing support for the understanding that if, for whatever reason, some of the conservative members of the caucus choose not to support a public option or vote for final passage that is fine," said Sanders. "We can live with that. What we do need is a united caucus to say to the republicans and say, 'sorry you are not going to sidetrack health care reform and we are going to go forward.'"
"You will have 50 votes for a strong public option" if we get there, Sanders added. "I do believe that."
Meanwhile, there are new moves to get potential fence-straddlers on the public record about cloture. One major union is pushing the idea to reporters. Democracy for America, meanwhile, has launched an "America Can't Wait" campaign with similar objectives. "It is based on the concept that it is possible right now to pass a bill through both houses of Congress with majority vote," said Charles Chamberlain, political director for the group that was launched by former DNC Chairman Howard Dean. "Public comments from a lot of different senators indicate that the votes are there on cloture."
Right now, there is no exact count as to how many of the senators in the Democratic caucus who would oppose health care reform -- if, say, it included a public option for insurance coverage - would nevertheless be willing to allow it to come to an up-or-down vote. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), one of the most vocal skeptics of his party's health care legislation, has nevertheless indicated that he would support cloture even if he ultimately votes against the bill.
And Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn) told a crowd of progressives in mid-August that he thought there were enough votes to stave off a filibuster. "We can get cloture on health care," the Republican-turned-Democrat said. "There will be, I predict, and I predict confidently, which I don't ordinarily do, that there are 60 votes for cloture. I think there are 61. I put [Maine Republican Sen. Olympia] Snowe in there."
Several weeks after Specter's remarks, Sen. Kennedy succumbed to a yearlong struggle with brain cancer -- in the process decreasing the number of caucusing Democrats to 59. But a vote by the Massachusetts Senate on Tuesday to allow the state's governor to temporarily fill that seat should push that number back to the critical 60.
And yet, questions remain. For starters, where do other senators such as Mary Landrieu, (D-LA) and Joseph Lieberman, (I-Conn.) -- come down on cloture? Equally important is the health of the Senate's longest-serving member, Robert Byrd (D-WV), who was rushed to the hospital earlier in the week after a fall.
Still, strategist within the party say the push for getting all caucusing members to back cloture may be the most promising legislative path forward. For starters, it would allow Democrats to pass a more robust reform package than they could likely get through reconciliation -- the parliamentary procedure that also allows for an up-or-down vote but restricts the language of the bill to a five-year budget window.
The commit-to-cloture path also immunizes party members from being tagged with trying to ram a nearly $1 billion piece of legislation through Congress through non-traditional procedural means. And while some conservative Democrats could be criticized for casting votes in favor of considering health care reform, they could temper the hit by ultimately voting against the bill's passage.
"People have lost seats on procedural votes," said Tad Devine, a long-time Democratic strategist. "That is what happened in the 1994 election, when President Clinton's economic package went into law and a number of Democrats in the House lost their seats... But if you are talking about one or two people who are well established, they can oppose legislation on the merits but allow it to come to a vote and I don't think that's enough to cost them a seat."
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