Senator Joseph Lieberman's (I-Conn) threat to filibuster health care legislation that includes a public option for insurance coverage has sent minor shock-waves throughout Washington.
Among Republicans, the Connecticut Independent inspired a round of cheers for another streak of political independence. Among progressives the question being asked is: How could one senator, through threat of filibuster, hold a historic reform process hostage?
It's a question Lieberman himself once asked. And it's a procedural ploy he once lamented.
Fifteen years ago, as a freshman Democrat, Lieberman actually worked to have the filibuster killed. He deemed the parliamentary maneuver "a dinosaur" that had become "a symbol of a lot that ails Washington today." And, in tandem with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), he introduced legislation that -- if it had been enacted -- would have made his current opposition to health care absolutely toothless.
After the congressional elections of 1994, in which the power of both chambers switched hands from Democrats to Republicans, Lieberman and Harkin made a rather bold move. Political obstructionism, the two said, had grown out of hand. And even though Democrats were now in the minority, if the Senate ever wanted to make legislative progress the rules needed to be revamped. On November 22, 1994, the senators held a press conference announcing their intention to drastically water down the power of the filibuster. Lieberman offered the following quotes (which, in today's context, seem utterly out of place for the now Connecticut Independent):
"[People] are fed up -- frustrated and fed up and angry about the way in which our government does not work, about the way in which we come down here and get into a lot of political games and seem to -- partisan tugs of war and forget why we're here, which is to serve the American people. And I think the filibuster has become not only in reality an obstacle to accomplishment here, but it also a symbol of a lot that ails Washington today."
"But I do want to say that the Republicans were not the only perpetrators of filibuster gridlock, there were occasions when Democrats did it as well. And the long and the short of it is that the abuse of the filibuster was bipartisan and so its demise should be bipartisan as well."
"The whole process of individual senators being able to hold up legislation, which in a sense is an extension of the filibuster because the hold has been understood in one way to be a threat to filibuster -- it's just unfair."
"I'm very proud to be standing here with Tom as two Democrats saying that we're going to begin this fight, because we've just been stung by the filibuster for a period of years, and even though the tables have now turned, it doesn't make it right for us to use this instrument that we so vilified."
Lieberman concluded the conference by noting that his effort was an uphill battle. What he and Harkin wanted to do was to make it so that senators could delay the consideration of legislation, but not inevitably. The Senate would still need 60 votes on the first motion to end debate, (the cloture vote). But the next motion would require just 57 votes, the third motion 54 votes, and the fourth and final effort would need just 51 votes -- a simple majority. In all, roughly 25 days would elapse between the first and fourth vote.
"There's no question that there's going to be resistance," Lieberman predicted at the time. "I mean, we're asking individual members of the Senate to give up power, but if you give up a little bit of power yourself, you make the whole body more productive and better. And you all gain as a result of that."
But the resistance proved too strong. Lieberman and Harkin got their legislation to a vote. But it died on the Senate floor by a margin of 76 to 19. Every single Republican and a majority of Democrats voted to keep the procedural tool in their pockets, with the chamber's senior Democratic member -- West Virginia's Robert Byrd - leading the way.
"This issue is not going away," Harkin said after the vote.
He was correct. In the 15 years since then, the use of the filibuster has proliferated even further. There were, in 1994, just 39 cloture motions filed on the Senate floor. Last year, that number stood at 139. This year, meanwhile, Lieberman is threatening to add to those totals.
"I've told Sen. [Harry] Reid that if the bill stays as it is now I will vote against cloture," the senator said this past week. "I can't see a way in which I could vote for cloture on any bill that contained a creation of a government-operated-run insurance company."
Neither Lieberman nor Harkin's office returned a request for comment. Though, in a bit of irony, the two, have once again been brought together on the question of the appropriate use of a filibuster. Only this time, they're in opposition. On Thursday, Harkin was asked what he thought of Lieberman's threat to torpedo health care reform with a public plan (something Harkin adamantly supports).
"[Lieberman] still wants to be a part of the Democratic Party although he is a registered independent," the HELP Committee chair responded. "He wants to caucus with us and, of course, he enjoys his chairmanship of the [Homeland Security] committee because of the indulgence of the Democratic Caucus. So, I'm sure all of those things will cross his mind before the final vote," he said in a conference call with local reporters.