Senate Sextet

On Saturday, the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate brought health care reform to the floor of the body with a strict party line vote, 60-39 -- the bare minimum to stave off a Republican-led filibuster. Unlike the House, a supermajority is often required to pass legislation in the Senate to invoke cloture and prevent the opposition's stalling tactics, igniting floor debate and often a roll call vote. Democrats hold a firm 58 seats in the current Senate, with two independents also joining their caucus for a fragile filibuster-proof majority. Any fracture to this coalition requires bi-partisan support, a difficult proposition in what has become an intensely polarized body.

Political scientist Keith Krehbiel developed the "pivotal politics" model more than a decade ago in a quest to examine the problem of legislative gridlock that rose to the common vernacular during the Reagan-Bush era. Clinton's election in 1992, coupled with the Democratic Party's hold on Congress, stirred excitement that gridlock would end with the return of unified control. To these proponents' chagrin, however, little changed, and divided government returned shortly thereafter with the G.O.P.'s 1994 takeover of Congress. Something was amiss, and Krehbiel sought a more simplistic explanation for gridlock that transcended party control. Enter the "pivotal politics" model.

The model centers on the median voter in Congress, but also accounts for presidential preferences, institutional features like the filibuster in the Senate, and the veto pen wielded by the President. The pivotal players in Congress are the median voter, those near the sixty vote margin necessary to end extended debate in the Senate through cloture, and those near the two-thirds threshold necessary to override a presidential veto. All of these preferences are placed on a unidimensional line, thus the simplicity of the model. Elections are the dynamic force where these preferences can shift along the line.

A particularly compelling element is its ability to explain the productivity that usually accompanies the presidential honeymoon, the inevitable decline, even the lame duck status at the end of the second term. Presidents typically have coattails (Clinton and George W. Bush, excepted) and thus have favorable ideological alignments behind their programs upon entering office. The first hundred days is a natural outgrowth of this arrangement. The inevitable decline centers on this initial movement away from the status quo, leaving less to accomplish other than nibbling at the margins. Midterm losses are typically inevitable for the party of the President, and his productivity is thus undermined by the new ideological arrangement in Congress that emerges. Lame duck status is thus the logical outcome.

Krehbiel rejects party-based explanations for maintenance of the status quo or gridlock. While refusing to dismiss their significance entirely, he suggests that they are not integral to a "good theory of lawmaking." Gridlock is instead a product of an ideologically moderate status quo, supermajority requirements in Congress, and the heterogeneous preferences of legislators.

How does Kriebel's model illuminate the contemporary debate? Given that the House has already passed a reform bill, all eyes are on the Senate. The President made health care reform the centerpiece of his agenda, so the threat of a veto is non-existent, his signature on anything remotely smelling of reform inevitable. The pivot is centrally located at the filibuster, or the sixtieth vote. By my calculation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can count on 56 votes for the legislation as it now stands, sufficient for passage assuming the opposition does not filibuster. Given the stakes involved, I find a truce unlikely.

Those 56 votes exclude three Democrats and one independent, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson and Lieberman are both adamantly opposed to the public option, a staple of the current legislation. Arkansas Democratic Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landrieu of Arkansas and Louisiana, respectively, also have major concerns about the bill as it stands. All four are moderates and stand near the 60-vote threshold of the Senate's ideological continuum. Any attrition from this group would require Reid to reach across the aisle, and likely the filibuster pivot, to recruit one or more moderate Republicans. Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are perhaps the only two possibilities, so Democratic defection greater than two equals defeat.

Given the concerns voiced by Snowe for one about the public option as it now stands, her vote can only be won through a change to a state-based trigger mechanism instead of an opt-out as it now stands. Nelson and Lieberman seek its removal altogether, a deal-breaker for the more liberal members of the party and its voting base. For legislation to pass before Christmas or prior to the President's State of the Union speech in January, I predict either a further neutered public option or a 56-44 vote with the four Democratic caucus members voting against the bill, but also in favor of cloture.

Through it all, keep your eyes on the pivot, for a sextet of Senators hold the keys to the fate of health care reform in America.