A note about motions to proceed

The Senate will take up the American Jobs Act tonight, and no one needs a crystal ball to know the bill won’t come close to getting 60 votes. But let’s take a moment to mention exactly what will be voted on tonight.

This is not a vote on final passage of the bill. It’s not even a cloture vote to end debate so that there can be a vote on final passage. Tonight, rather, is on the motion to proceed. The Senate is an awkward institution with often-incomprehensible procedures, but motions to proceed are among the more frustrating wastes of time in this institution.

In effect, what the Senate will vote on tonight is whether they can have a debate on the jobs bill. That’s all this is, a vote to allow a discussion. Republicans will, of course, filibuster the motion to proceed — a concept that would have been considered patently ridiculous not too terribly long ago — even before having an opportunity to filibuster the bill itself.

When members of the Democratic caucus — Ben Nelson, Joe Manchin, and Joe Lieberman — vote with Republicans tonight, they’re not only rejecting a credible jobs bill, they’re also rejecting an opportunity to talk about a credible jobs bill. Republicans and conservative Dems are, as a practical matter, saying that the notion of even debating the American Jobs Act is so offensive, they can’t even allow members to begin the discussion.

A couple of years ago, when the Senate was getting ready to bring a health care reform bill to the floor, Republicans vowed to filibuster the motion to proceed then, too. Nebraska’s Ben Nelson said at the time, “Why would you stop senators from doing the job they’re elected to do — debate, consider amendments, and take action on an issue affecting every American?”

Two years later, he will join every Republican in killing a jobs bill — during a jobs crisis — stopping senators from “doing the job they’re elected to do.”