Arcane Senate Rules Will Save the Country (Maybe)

I doubt you're eager to hear a great deal more about the impending government shutdown (if you find yourself interested in it for more than four hours, consult a medical professional immediately), but there's a glimmer of hope today that things may turn out OK, at least until we have to fight over the debt ceiling in two weeks. And it's all thanks to absurdly complex Senate procedures, which could allow Republicans to save face while keeping the government from shutting down.

As you may have heard, the House recently passed a continuing resolution (CR) temporarily funding the government so long as the Affordable Care Act is defunded, President Barack Obama publicly renounces any intentions to help people get insurance ever again, and a nine-year-old girl with leukemia is delivered to the House floor so members of the Republican caucus can tell her to her face that she's a loser who should get a job and stop being such a drain on society (well OK, not those last two, but perhaps they'll be passed at a later date). This CR can't pass the Democratic-majority Senate, and sane Republicans know that if the government shuts down, the GOP will get the blame. But they also know they need to make as many pointless, symbolic fist-shaking gestures against Obamacare as they possibly can to forestall challenges from the right. No one understands this better than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, possibly the savviest politician in Washington, who is getting just such a Tea Party primary challenge in his ongoing re-election race. What to do?

Deliverance arrives in the form of Senate rules. You see, the House's CR will be considered by the Senate in stages. First, they will vote to begin debating it. The appropriate anti-Obama vote is "yes," because if you vote "no"—in other words, if you filibuster the CR at that stage—you'd be voting against defunding Obamacare. But then Majority Leader Harry Reid will offer an amendment to strip out the Obamacare defunding provision. And the catch is that votes on amendments only require a simple majority (no filibustering). So you can vote "no" on Reid's amendment, keeping you safely anti-Obamacare. It will pass despite your opposition, and the CR, now cleansed of the thing that would cause President Obama to veto it, will be approved. Republicans can say they voted not once but twice against Obamacare, yet the government stays open, so they avoid blame for a shutdown. Hosanna!

(That is, providing Speaker John Boehner allows a vote on the clean CR the Senate passed, which would pass mostly with Democratic votes. But let's leave that for later.)

This is the path of sanity, which is why McConnell announced late yesterday it's the path he'd be taking. He understands that even though it's also the path that abandons the all-out campaign against Obamacare for the moment, that's very difficult to explain to voters. He'll say, "I voted to defund Obamacare twice last week!" And his primary opponent will say, "By not filibustering the continuing resolution with the defunding provision you allowed the CR to proceed so the defunding provision could later be stripped by amendment on a majority vote! Traitor!" And Kentucky Republican voters will respond, "Huh? Whatever, Mitch is fighting Obamacare."

So the Democrats win because the government stays open and the ACA is not defunded, and Republicans win because they can plausibly say they continued their now-lengthy tradition of symbolic anti-Obamacare votes. Isn't democracy grand?

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