Sunday, December 6, 2009

Senator Crafts Stupak-Pitts-Like Amendment, To What End?

David Waldman at DailyKos asks Ben Nelson, "What's Your Endgame?" and in the course of questioning gives us a run down of how the Hatch-Nelson amendment, a Stupak-Pitts clone of funding restriction for abortion, could go:

The Hill:

An amendment restricting abortions does not appear to have enough support to be attached to the Senate healthcare bill.

Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) said he expected that all but a few Republicans would support the Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-Neb) amendment, which would restrict access to abortions for women who receive federal subsidies.

But the amendment is likely to be subject to the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, and Kyl does not expect 20 votes on the other side to back the controversial change.

And what is the Senate's 60-vote threshold?

Well, of course, it's something you only see if one of two things happens. Either:

  1. there's a filibuster, and you need 60 votes to invoke cloture before getting a vote on the amendment, or;
  2. there's a unanimous consent agreement to bypass the mess of cloture filing, and the amendment is withdrawn if it doesn't garner 60 votes to pass.

And what if it doesn't reach that 60-vote threshold?

The defeat of his amendment would be politically significant because Nelson has pledged to vote with Republicans to filibuster the health bill if it did not include the Stupak language.

"I’ve said at the end of the day if it doesn’t have Stupak language on abortion in it I won’t vote to move it off the floor," Nelson told reporters.

That's sort of where the story ends for the traditional media, even for specialty publications like The Hill.

But both Nelson and his fellow Democrats should be asked about their exit strategies for this fight. Because the mere fact that there's a 60-vote threshold isn't the end of the story.

If there's a 60-vote threshold because Democrats filibuster the amendment, what happens? Nelson offers his amendment, Democrats filibuster, and there are fewer than 60 votes for cloture, in which case debate continues indefinitely. That means the whole health insurance reform bill is stuck and can't move forward. Getting out of that jam either requires Democrats to produce votes for cloture and then shoot it out over whether the amendment gets a simple majority to pass, or requires Mr. Tough Guy Hard Liner to fold his tent and go home.

In other words, Nelson either has to surrender preemptively by voluntarily subjecting his amendment to a 60-vote threshold, or surrender later by voluntarily withdrawing his amendment when cloture fails, or Ben Nelson sinks health insurance reform.

Well, either that, or 22 Democrats have to go on record voting for cloture, but then at least nine of them have to turn around and vote no on the amendment. Perfectly plausible, but it means a 51-vote threshold for the amendment after all.

There is one more option, technically, and that's voting to table the amendment. Dems might be able to garner the simple majority vote to do that, but that leaves Nelson standing, uncompromised, on record as opposing final passage of the bill, and with a procedural excuse to do it.

I wonder which it's gonna be. Will all-of-a-sudden Mr. Hard Guy agree to set himself up for failure going into his big fight? Will he withdraw his amendment and just hope that the anti-choice voices he was hoping to placate in Nebraska don't notice that he was just kidding? Or will his fellow Dems engineer procedure to shunt him off onto a side track and leave his obstructionist ass behind?

We'll find out next week.

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