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Saturday's Health Care Vote Does Not Ensure Passage

November 20, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

Senate Republicans today are pointing to a new CRS report to bolster their argument that a vote tomorrow to begin debate of the health care bill is a de facto vote in favor of passing the bill. According to Roll Call the report found that between 1999 and 2008, the Senate voted 41 times to approve cloture motions to begin debate of bills (the same kind of motion that will be voted on tomorrow), and of those 41 bills, 40 of them ultimately ended up being passed. That’s a 97.6 percent success rate for bills that are brought up through invoking cloture on the motion to proceed.

“Tomorrow’s vote is a critical vote because it will basically mean that we’re on the road to passage,” Sen. Judd Gregg [R,NH] said today on the Senate floor.

But here’s the thing: the vast majority of the 41 bills in the CRS report were not actually controversial. It takes only one senator to object to beginning debate of a bill and force the Senate to take a cloture vote. So often a single senator will force a cloture vote on the motion to proceed to a bill that is actually very popular and bipartisan. For example, the most recent vote the Senate took on a motion to invoke cloture on a motion to proceed to debate was on an unemployment benefits extension bill that ultimately ended up passing 98-0. Before that bill, the second most recent bill to face a cloture vote on the motion to proceed was the GIVE Act, which ended up passing on an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 79-19. Before that it was the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, which ultimately passed 77-20. Et cetera…

If you were to look at just highly controversial bills like the health care bill, the CRS report would look much less like a foregone conclusion. This isn’t scientific, and the CRS report hasn’t been made public, but the only bill in recent memory that was similarly contentious but passed the cloture motion to begin debate is the comprehensive immigration reform bill that the Senate debated during the last session of Congress. That bill ultimately failed. The Senate spent weeks voting on amendments from both sides of the aisle to try to find some kind of agreement on the bill, but in the end it failed to pass cloture on ending the debate by a vote of 45-50. Read the OpenCongress Wiki page on the bill for a good outline of the action on the bill that finally resulted in failure.

Senate Democratic leaders have been telling on-the-fence Democrats that they should vote to move the bill forward to debate because they will have opportunities on the floor to change the bill, and if they still don’t like it, they can vote it down on the cloture motion before final passage. The immigration debate of last session tells us that for bills that are this controversial, that is in fact a realistic outcome. Tomorrow’s vote is essential for passing the bill, but it does not by any means ensure final passage.

For more background on the procedure the Senate is using to bring the health care bill to the floor, see this previous blog post.

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