I understand why people might be angry over Ben Nelson's decision to come out against a public insurance option in health care reform. But not why they'd be surprised. Nelson, after all, voted to cut the stimulus, voted against the budget, is fighting to retain the breaks to student loan middlemen, is loudly broadcasting his skepticism with cap and trade legislation, and has been cool to the very idea of health care reform. He's been about as kind to Obama's agenda as the critics have been to the new Wolverine movie.
There was, in other words, simply no precedent for him to support the most progressive element of the overall plan. In fact, there's no precedent for him to support the plan itself. The question is really whether he'll be able to force a substantially more conservative "compromise" plan, as he did with the stimulus.
Similarly, it's no surprise to see Arlen Specter come out against the public insurance option, as he did on Meet the Press yesterday. When I say the guy was a Republican till, like, yesterday, I'm exaggerating by a matter of days. What you need from Specter -- and for that matter, from Nelson -- is not support for the plan's particular provisions or even its overall structure. You just need them to vote for cloture.
That's part of the beauty of having 60 votes. If you can mass the necessary senators to break the filibuster, then you can actually lose up to 10 Democratic votes on the actual bill. People confuse the fact that you need 60 votes to vote on a bill with the idea that you need 60 votes to pass a bill. You don't. You still only need 50 votes to pass a bill. You need 60 votes to pass cloture. If Nelson and Specter vote for cloture and then vote against the bill, they will, so far as Harry Reid is concerned, have done their jobs. If they decide, instead, to form a coalition of moderates that demands a watered down bill before they'll vote for cloture, that's rather different. The impressive majority Democrats now possess gives their members room to go a bit rogue. But only a bit.