The contentiousness of Conrad’s count

THE CONTENTIOUSNESS OF CONRAD’S COUNT…. Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota told Fox News over the weekend that there’s no point in pursuing a public option as part of health care reform because it doesn’t have 60 votes. “The fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for a public option. There never have been,” Conrad added.

As we talked about on Sunday, that’s almost certainly wrong. Conrad’s probably right that a public option doesn’t have 60 supporters right now, but that’s not the right question. As a procedural matter, Conrad’s point is largely wrong. If a reform bill reaches the floor, and every Democrat in the chamber agrees that the legislation should get an up-or-down vote, reform with a public option needs 50, not 60, votes.

Ryan Grim fleshed this out in more detail.

Conrad … is presumably assuming that a bill containing a public option would need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. But even if that is the case, not a single member of the Democratic caucus — including Conrad himself — has actually announced that he or she would support such a filibuster. And a few Republicans — Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine — might not support it either.

“Senator Conrad should leave the vote counting to the leadership,” a peeved Democratic leadership aide told the Huffington Post.

The fate of the public option may very well hinge on whether Senate Democrats support or reject a Republican filibuster. If the bill gets an up-or-down vote — in other words, if Senate Democrats agree that the Senate should be able to cast a vote for or against health care reform — it needs 50 votes. Conrad, Nelson, Landrieu, Bayh, Lieberman, and Lincoln could all vote against reform on the Senate floor, it would still pass with votes to spare.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told his colleagues in July, “Don’t let the Republicans filibuster us into failure. We want to succeed, and to succeed, we need to stick together.”

It’s a simple concept. The electorate has given Democrats a chance to govern, and expect them to deliver. Members of the caucus “may vote against final passage on a bill,” Durbin said, but Democratic colleagues should at least reject the idea of “allowing the filibuster to stop the whole Senate.” He concluded, “We ought to control our own agenda.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont said something similar, arguing that senators in the Democratic caucus should feel free to vote for or against any bill, but being a member of the caucus should, at a minimum, mean opposition to Republican obstructionism: “I think the strategy should be that every Democrat, no matter whether or not they ultimately end up voting for the final bill, is to say we are going to vote together to stop a Republican filibuster.”

If every member of the Senate Democratic caucus agrees that health care reform deserves an up-or-down vote, there’s still a chance for meaningful reform.