Cross-posted from Congress Matters.
Sen. McConnell (R-KY) is making noises that translate into a filibuster threat on the stimulus package. But if you're having difficulty believing that Republicans would really block a stimulus in the face of a collapsing economy, your instincts probably serve you well.
The reason McConnell didn't just say "yes" to the question of whether or not Republicans would filibuster the stimulus is that they likely don't have long-term plans to block or kill the passage of the bill, at least in some form. So while he was reluctant to say that there would be a filibuster, there really is nothing else he could have been talking about when he insisted that moving forward would require 60 votes.
But the wiggle room he's imagining for himself arises from the fact that it's not necessarily his intention to actually stop the passage of some kind of stimulus package, and so he therefore feels justified in refusing to use the word filibuster to describe what he's up to. Rather than block passage, Republicans are likely interested in demonstrating their ability to block it if certain concessions aren't made.
Do they have that ability? The answer changes depending on the situation. On a strictly party-line vote, they would have the necessary numbers. But only a relatively narrow range of conditions -- most of which are seen as unlikely -- would force a party-line vote. If the bill were put to a vote without amendment, the likelihood is that Republican Senators, to a person, would vote against cloture, as much out of a sense of outrage at the process as objection to the substance. The less play Republicans are given in the process, the greater the likelihood that they'll express their displeasure in the form of a "no" vote on cloture.
If that were the only consideration, you wouldn't have to grant a whole lot of leeway before securing the few Republican votes necessary to overcome a filibuster threat. But Republicans aren't the only ones looking for room to maneuver on this bill. Democrats like Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Kent Conrad (D-ND) are already saying they have problems with the bill in its current form. Does that translate into a no vote on cloture? Not if their concerns get enough of an airing. But if you try to steamroller them (not that anyone thinks Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is interested in trying that), yes, you should expect "no" votes from them. It's not unheard of. Nelson and Conrad have parted ways with the majority of Democrats on cloture before -- Nelson nine times and Conrad eight in the last Congress. And they're not even the ones who most frequently did so. At least nine other Democrats racked up a double digit count on such crossovers, including Mary Landrieu (21), Joe Lieberman (15), Mark Pryor (14), Evan Bayh (13), Byron Dorgan (13), Max Baucus (12), Claire McCaskill (12), Roberty Byrd (11) and Bernie Sanders (11). See any names among them who might have some objection to big ticket legislation where Republicans are screaming about "pork" and "earmarks?"
Even the Republicans generally thought of as more receptive to Democratic legislation (and better bets for votes on cloture) -- including some like Collins, who've been counted among the supporters of the stimulus package -- are beginning to see the opportunity to leverage the implied threat of a filibuster for as long as it might take to get a crack at some time in the spotlight with an amendment or two, and paint themselves as serious budget hawks, interested not in killing the stimulus, but in giving it "focus."
So do Republicans intend to filibuster the bill? Probably not in the sense that they want to see it killed, which means they'll deny that they're engaged in a filibuster, or even threatening one. But make no mistake, there is no reason why anything in the Senate requires 60 votes except to end a filibuster, whether one materializes out in the open or not. If the threat is that the bill's opponents will force a 60 vote threshold unless they get an opportunity to change the bill, the threat is nothing other than a threat to filibuster.
Will a filibuster materialize? Probably not, at least not one seriously aimed at killing the bill. Instead, concessions will be made that should guarantee forward progress on some amended form of the bill. That by itself won't eliminate the need for a cloture vote at some point -- and maybe more than one -- if there are Senators holding out for still more concessions. But expect a deal to be struck that should eliminate the possibility of a successful filibuster that would actually prevent the bill from coming to a vote. And that's what will matter to the Senate leadership. They'll be willing to sit through the show that the holdouts might want to put on if they know they can get to a vote by the end of the week, or soon thereafter.