UP-OR-DOWN VOTES…. It’s taken for granted that a bill may enjoy the support of a majority of the Senate, but it probably won’t pass. For most of American history, 51 votes meant success. Slowly but surely, without any discussion or debate, the threshold became 60. Now, 41 senators can simply decide not to let the chamber vote on bills they don’t like.

In the context of the health care debate, this is obviously of critical importance. An ambitious, progressive bill could get 51 votes, but that’s been deemed inadequate. Republicans will filibuster reform, and the Democratic caucus has 59 votes, not 60. It’s left Dems scrambling to figure out how to use the reconciliation process.

The lingering issue that often goes overlooked is the number of Democratic caucus members prepared to support GOP filibusters on bills they don’t like. Ed Kilgore argues today, “That Democrats could be against health reform is disappointing. That they’d deny a vote on it is unacceptable.”

[T]he time has come — and in fact, it is long overdue — for them to begin forcefully making the case that being a member in good standing of the party’s Senate caucus means supporting cloture motions on key legislation even if a given senator intends to vote against it.

This case was, in fact, briefly made in July by Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin — but it gained little traction. Durbin’s argument should be revived in and outside the Senate. Right now, progressive groups around the country are in the midst of efforts to agitate for a “public option” as an essential feature of health reform, and eventually will devote enormous efforts to support final passage of health reform, if we ever get to that point. Wavering Democrats have been targeted for ads and other communications, with mixed results. A significant fraction of that pressure should be devoted to a very simple message: Democrats should not conspire with Republicans to obstruct a vote in the Senate on the president’s top domestic priority. Vote your conscience, or your understanding of your constituents’ views, Ben Nelson, but don’t prevent a vote. […]

There’s no real “down side” for Democrats to a campaign for party discipline on cloture votes, because Republicans already largely have it on legislation that matters. Democrats need to stop kowtowing to “moderates” who see a vote for cloture as the same thing as voting for the actual bill. These moderates can show their centrist bonafides by voting against the actual bill — and Democrats, free of the 60 votes needed for cloture, can finally pass the bill with the simple majority it deserves.

Damn straight. Durbin 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.”

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.”

Now, admittedly, this meant more when the Democratic caucus had 60 votes, not 59.

But it still matters. Party leaders are not only figuring out a way to earn Olympia Snowe’s support, they’re also figuring out a way to ensure centrist and center-right Dems won’t support a GOP filibuster.

This shouldn’t even be controversial — to be a member of the caucus means letting the Senate vote on Democratic bills. It doesn’t mean every Dem has to vote on every Democratic idea; it means they at least have to let the vote happen. Seems like a no-brainer.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.