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Sneaky Rules of the Senate

February 17th, 2007

On Friday Democrats in the House of Representatives flexed their new majority muscle to pass a non-binding resolution opposing the surge/escalation in Iraq. The resolution was brief, to the point, and palatable enough to garner the support of 17 Republicans on top of all but two Democrats.

So impressed by the resolution, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scheduled a rare Saturday vote on identical language (as opposed to the 14 page whopper they had tried to adopt the week before). It was my thinking that this was a pretty clever move on the Majority Leader’s part. To end the Republican filibuster Reid needed a 3/5ths majority and I figured the Saturday vote would mean fewer Republicans and thus a lower absolute vote total.

Indeed, when the vote was taken it came to 56-34–nine Republicans absent and Democratic Sen. Johnson of South Dakota still recovering from brain surgery. Now 56 plus 34 is 90, and 56 is 3/5ths of 90… so why was the Washington Post story reporting the filibuster had held?

Because Senate Rule 22 says so, that’s why. The threshold is not based on the number of votes cast as it is with nearly all other votes in both the House and Senate. Rather, it is based on the number of Senators “duly chosen and sworn.” Which means if there are 100 seated Senators, you need 60 affirmative votes to end a filibuster. Just as importantly, a “present” or “absent” vote is equivalent to a no vote. The only reason the minority even bother to vote, as far as I can see, is to avoid accusations of laziness back home.

In the end, Reid ends up looking like the fool. Democratic presidential candidates had to leave the campaign trail to go in for the vote, Republicans were allow out to play, and the Republicans continue to prevent a Senate resolution on Iraq. But don’t think this fight is over… there is a mighty big appropriations bill working its way down the pike, and I think Rep. Murtha is going to have a few things to say about it.

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