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What Happened to the Senate's '60-Vote Requirement'?
Every time Congressional Democrats failed this year to stop the Bush administration (i.e., every time they "tried"), the excuse they gave was that they "need 60 votes in the Senate" in order to get anything done. Each time Senate Republicans blocked Democratic legislation, the media helpfully explained not that Republicans were obstructing via filibuster, but rather that, in the Senate, there is a general "60-vote requirement" for everything.
How, then, can this be explained?
The Senate confirmed Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general Thursday night, approving him despite Democratic criticism that he had failed to take an unequivocal stance against the torture of terrorism detainees.
The 53-to-40 vote made Mr. Mukasey, a former federal judge, the third person to head the Justice Department during the tenure of President Bush . . . Thirty-nine Democrats and one independent [Bernie Sanders] opposed him.
Beyond that, four Senate Democrats running for President missed the vote, and all four had announced they oppose Mukasey's confirmation. Thus, at least 44 Senators claimed to oppose Mukasey's confirmation -- more than enough to prevent it via filibuster. So why didn't they filibuster, the way Senate Republicans have on virtually every measure this year which they wanted to defeat? Numerous Senate Democrats delivered dramatic speeches from the floor as to why Mukasey's confirmation would be so devastating to the country. The Washington Post said the "vote came after more than four hours of impassioned floor debate."
"Torture should not be what America stands for . . . I do not vote to allow torture," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy. Russ Feingold said: "we need an attorney general who will tell the president that he cannot ignore the laws passed by Congress. And on that fundamental qualification for this office Judge Mukasey falls short." Feingold added: "If Judge Mukasey won't say the simple truth -- that this barbaric practice is torture -- how can we count on him to stand up to the White House on other issues?"
Wow -- it sounds as though there was really a lot at stake in this vote. So why would 44 Democratic Senators make a flamboyant showing of opposing confirmation without actually doing what they could to prevent it? Is it that a filibuster was not possible because a large number of these Democratic Senators were willing to symbolically oppose confirmation so they could say they did -- by casting meaningless votes in opposition knowing that confirmation was guaranteed -- but were unwilling to demonstrate the sincerity of their claimed beliefs by acting on them?
The Post said the vote "reflected an effort by Democrats to register their displeasure with Bush administration policies on torture and the boundaries of presidential power." Apparently, they wanted to oh-so-meaningfully "register their displeasure" but not actually stop confirmation.
[The most amazing quote was from chief Mukasey supporter Chuck Schumer, who, before voting for him, said that Mukasey is "wrong on torture -- dead wrong." Marvel at that phrase: "wrong on torture." Six years ago, there wasn't even any such thing as being "wrong on torture," because "torture" wasn't something we debated. It would have been incoherent to have heard: "Well, he's dead wrong on torture, but . . . "
Now, "torture" is not only something we openly debate, but it's something we do. And the fact that someone is on the wrong side of the "torture debate" doesn't prevent them from becoming the Attorney General of the United States. It's just one issue, like any other issue -- the capital gains tax, employer mandates for health care, the water bill -- and just because someone is "dead wrong" on one little issue (torture) hardly disqualifies them from High Beltway Office.]
Over and over again this year, Republican filibusters were depicted (both by Senate Democrats and the media) as nothing more the routine need to obtain the "60 votes required" for passage of any measure in the Senate. That "requirement" was said to apply to everything, including immigration ("The Senate voted 52-44 for the DREAM Act, but 60 votes were required to end debate"); Iraq withdrawal timetables ("Support is expected to top 50 votes but fall short of the 60 required"); troop leave requirements ("Webb's Iraq bill inches closer to 60 . . . . Winning at least three of those Republicans over could give the Democrats the 60 votes they need"); and warrantless surveillance ("Democratic-sponsored bill failed to reach the 60-vote majority").
As Steve Benen recently documented (emphasis in original):
The Republican minority has created a de facto 60-vote minimum to do anything of substance in the Senate. They'll allow routine up-or-down votes on renaming post offices, or those rare bills that enjoy near-unanimous support, but otherwise, it's filibuster time on the Senate floor. And while the number of filibusters has been going up pretty consistently for 20 years, these Republicans appear to be in a league of their own.
Benen quoted John McCain as explaining: "You can't say that all we're going to do around here in the United States Senate is have us govern by 51 votes -- otherwise we might as well be unicameral, because then we would have the Senate and the House exactly the same."
But it isn't true that there is a "60-vote requirement," because only Republicans are willing to impose it. Democrats won't, even on what they claim are the gravest of matters, such as confirming someone as Attorney General who is "dead wrong on torture" and who won't even "tell the president that he cannot ignore the laws passed by Congress."
The so-called "60-vote requirement" applies only when it is time to do something to limit the Bush administration. It is merely the excuse Senate Democrats use to explain away their chronic failure/unwillingness to limit the President, and it is what the media uses to depict the GOP filibuster as something normal and benign. There obviously is no "60-vote requirement" when it comes to having the Senate comply with the President's demands, as the 53-vote confirmation of Michael Mukasey amply demonstrates. But as Mukasey is sworn in as the highest law enforcement officer in America, the Democrats want you to know that they most certainly did stand firm and "register their displeasure."
Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book "How Would a Patriot Act?," a critique of the Bush administration's use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, "A Tragic Legacy", examines the Bush legacy.