When it comes to progressive priorities in the Senate, there's one standard: 60 votes are needed. But for Ben Bernanke, there's a second standard: 50 will be just fine, thank you.
Democratic leaders in the Senate are asking colleagues who are reluctant to support Bernanke's nomination for a second term as Federal Reserve chairman to nevertheless vote with them to end a filibuster and allow a vote on the actual nomination. The reluctant members would then be free to vote no to express their displeasure. Several Democrats have committed to just that and others are considering it.
The public health insurance option was stripped from health care reform because it didn't have 60 votes. An expansion of Medicare took its place but it, too, was dropped for having fewer than 60. Both proposals had at least 50 votes. Dawn Johnsen, a nominee to head the Office of Legal Counsel, has the backing of progressive organizations, but a 60-vote threshold has held her up for a year.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters on Monday afternoon after a meeting with Bernanke that some opponents of the chairman had pledged to support him on the first vote, but not on the second.
"I know that there are some Democrats who have stated publicly that they are not going to vote ultimately for his nomination as chairman of the Fed. Many, not all, but many of these Senate Democrats have said that they won't stop us on procedural votes. So we may have their support on cloture but not on final passage," he said.
HuffPost asked Durbin why they'd make that commitment for Bernanke but not for health care.
"I don't know. That's a good question. They come up with different standards in terms of how they do things," Durbin replied. "By and large, I will say, and I think Harry Reid and the leadership would agree, that with very few exceptions, the Democratic senators have stood behind us on procedural votes. And we expect them to. We ask them to."
Except on health care, the president's signature domestic legislation and a major plank in the Democratic platform for more than half a century.
"On health care, there were some exceptions," Durbin said, in something of an understatement. "There's no question about it. That's what made the job so difficult."
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who announced her opposition to Bernanke on Friday, has committed to vote for cloture -- in other words, to vote to end a filibuster, her spokeswoman told HuffPost. She will then vote against him on final passage.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) has been consistently opposed to Bernanke and told HuffPost that he'll vote against cloture, as well, meaning that he'll be opposing Bernanke in both of his votes rather than having it both ways. Asked why some of his colleagues considered the cloture vote critical on health care but not on Bernanke, he paused and smiled. "I don't know," he said.
Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said that he spent a lot of time recently talking with his home state colleague, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Bernanke opponent, but hadn't decided whether to oppose the chairman's reconfirmation.
But, he added, "I don't believe in filibusters on nominees."
Leahy, the Judiciary Committee chairman, has a consistent record opposing filibusters on nominees, but some of his other colleagues have more situational ethics when it comes to so-called "procedural" votes.
Casting a vote for cloture -- which ends a filibuster -- but against final passage lets a senator have it both ways. Voters back home can be told the senator stood in opposition, even when they didn't actually stand in the way.
In case of a 50-50 vote, Vice President Joe Biden can break the tie.
It gets complicated enough that even Leahy, who's been in the Senate since 1975, can get confused.
"I'd be disinclined to vote against cloture," he said, then paused, wondering if he had all the negatives straight. "I'd be inclined to vote for cloture," he clarified. Sort of.