With no margin for error

WITH NO MARGIN FOR ERROR…. Sen. Max Baucus (D) apparently had to travel home to Montana for a family emergency, which means there are now “only” 59 members of the Senate Democratic caucus on the Hill. As Ezra noted, this one family matter might delay the health care reform process just a little more.

Word was that Reid was hoping to vote to proceed on the bill on Saturday, but if Democrats don’t have Baucus, that could leave them with 59 votes, rather than the 60 needed to break the filibuster. The question then becomes whether Snowe or Collins will vote for cloture, or whether the vote needs to be delayed.

At the outset, this isn’t a terribly big deal, but it does show the chilling delicacy of the Democratic margin. If a single senator falls ill, or gets in a car accident, or is otherwise incapacitated, the vote count becomes wildly unbalanced, and health-care reform becomes imperiled.

It’s almost farcical.

Remember, this isn’t just about health care. Back in February, Congress needed to pass a stimulus bill to help rescue the economy. But with no margin for error, the Senate had to wait around for more than five hours because Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) was flying back to D.C. from his mother’s funeral.

With a 60-vote majority, one would like to think the Senate would still be able to operate if a guy has to fly home for a family emergency. But that’s not the case. If even one Democrat can’t show up for a vote for any reason, the legislative process stops — because majority-rule no longer exists in the chamber (and because GOP moderates have almost entirely disappeared).

There has to be a better way for a legislative branch to function.