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Jamie Court

Jamie Court

Posted: December 14, 2009 08:27 PM

Bust the Filibuster, Not Health Reform

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If the White House really wants historic health care reform and climate change legislation, there is one good alternative left. Change the number of votes to stop a filibuster in the U.S. Senate to 57 from the current 60 votes.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's call for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed to cut a deal with Senator Joe Lieberman, by dropping proposed Medicare expansion for 55 year olds, shows the powerlessness of the current arithmetic in the U.S. Senate. The same math was cited in Copenhagen by angry allies in the climate change fight.

CQ (subscription wall) reports:

"Members of the Senate are viewed as the greatest impediment to a deal," said Colin Challen, a British Labour Party member of Parliament and co-author of a joint British-Bangladeshi study on political inequities wrought by climate change. "Obama has a real problem."


Challen said he hopes U.S. state and regional officials concerned about climate change can persuade senators to act. "But I think an appeal to a greater sense of good is not going to be effective," he added. "That is the nature of the Senate. And the real problem we face here is arithmetic in the Senate."

There's a solution short of screwing the progressive public that handed Obama the keys to the White House. The Senate majority can change the rules on a filibuster. It's happened before.

My friend Joan Claybrook, former head of Public Citizen, who Consumer Watchdog feted this year at its annual Rage for Justice dinner, is responsible for reducing the number of votes to overcome a filibuster in the US Senate from 67 to 60. Senator Byrd changed the rules for cloture after Joan failed by a single vote under the old rules to pass legislation establishing a national Consumer Protection Agency. After the rule change, the bill passed the Senate, of course only to be stopped by the House.

The White House has been unwilling to bargain with recalcitrant senators by withholding military bases from their states and pulling back budget funds. That's how Lyndon Johnson would have handled this gridlock. If Obama is unwilling to play tough with members of his own party and allies, then he should ask Reid to change the rules of the game.

If climate change and health care reform are historic enough to fight for, then Democrats should be willing to risk being bitten by the filibuster rule change when the GOP takes charge again. It's a radical solution and that's why it cuts to the core of the problem: letting bad math overcome strong principles.

The nation shouldn't have to buy Joe Lieberman's principles to secure health care reform. We should be able to isolate him. A populist backlash is building against Obama. He would be wise to see it and focus the wave of popular anger on washing away the filibuster's current math. If you're President, you can and should change the rules to get the change the majority of voters seek. It's not cheating, it's winning. Obama needs break the Senate rules rather than his promises to the public.