Update: That's Ben Nelson for you, voting with the Republicans. Corker, Snowe, Collins, Brown (MA) all voted no, as did Grassley (who voted for Lincoln's derivatives reform in committee), so this one will fail. Expect to see Reid change his vote, so that he can bring the bill back up. --mcjoan.
Update 2: You'll note that although the Republicans have just voted to extend debate on whether or not to begin debate, there are none of them on the floor to... debate. Isn't that interesting? Happens every time. --David.
The Senate floor debate on Wall Street reform is finally underway, as they take up -- or rather, try to end debate on the question of whether or not to take up -- the Wall Street reform bill. Yes, we're in a quasi-filibuster situation, and what we'll be seeing at about 5pm Eastern is a vote on cloture on the motion to proceed to the bill. As with all cloture votes, it'll take 60 affirmative votes (that's three-fifths of all Senators duly chosen and sworn) to "invoke cloture," meaning to end debate.
Of course, the Senate's idea of "ending debate" really means "having up to 30 more hours of debate." And then after that 30 hours (or fewer, if Senators unanimously agree to lower the number), they'll have a vote on whether or not to actually proceed to starting debate on the bill itself.
Now, many of you are already familiar with this ridiculous procedure. You've seen it before on dozens of bills, because Republicans are already just reflexively filibustering everything. In fact, when it came to the health insurance reform bill, the vote on the motion to proceed ended up taking on more importance in a way than the actual vote on the bill itself. Remember this?
A crowd of about 50 people greeted senators as they left the Capitol's East entrance asking for autographs and cheering several senators.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) was beseiged with autograph and photo requests with many posing next to him. Asked if he had ever seen anything like this in his congressional career, Dodd deadpanned, "Not on a motion to proceed. Usually you have to pass a bill."
Both activists and the press made a really big deal out of the motion to proceed on the health insurance reform bill (and I'm glad they did), so it's not unusual anymore. And if they get past the motion to proceed, it's a pretty good bet they'll get past cloture on the bill, too. It's gotten so that cloture on the bill itself is something of an anticlimax, which is probably concealing a larger and more insightful point about the GOP's unprecedented abuse of the filibuster. It takes a rather unique set of circumstances to generate this much grassroots and media attention on cloture votes on motions to proceed.
Anyway, with that background in mind, it's important to know that the outcome of this vote is still very much in doubt. If the vote fails -- that is, if there are fewer than 60 votes for cloture and therefore debate on the motion is not ended -- then I guess you can refer to it as what passes for a filibuster these days. On the other hand, if the vote succeeds, you could call the Republican resistance a failed filibuster, though GOP Senators will likely deny that there was a filibuster at all. That's where we are on this subject, by the way. We can't even agree whether and when there's a filibuster going on. All we know is that someone's preventing anything from getting done, and that someone always turns out to be a Republican.
As I was saying, though, at this point no one's entirely sure how this vote will come out. Typically you don't see the Majority Leader moving things to the floor without some inkling (and usually a pretty strong one at that) of how it's going to work out in the end. At least not all that often. There are always a few surprises each year, but it's rare to see them moving ahead in a situation where they would be surprised to prevail, which may very well be the case with this vote today.
But remember that the Senate is a little different from the House in that respect, since moving to reconsider a vote is a much more routine practice there. In fact, if it looks like there will be fewer than 60 votes for cloture, you shouldn't be surprised or alarmed to see Harry Reid change his vote to a "no." That's because any Senator who voted on the winning side of any question can later call for reconsideration, which essentially leads to a "do-over" on the vote. And don't forget that with cloture, there's nothing preventing Senators from filing new motions later on. So if one cloture vote fails, and even if it fails again on reconsideration, you can still just make a motion for another cloture vote later on, though you'll have to wait for a full calendar day (plus one hour) to pass before you can get a vote again.
Senate Democrats likely think the issue of Wall Street reform breaks down fairly well for them in terms of putting pressure on the Republicans blocking reform, such that repeated attempts at invoking cloture won't be seen so much as a failure to "get things done" as an illustration of Republican intransigence on behalf of Public Enemy #1: Wall Street tycoons who love to rip off ordinary working people and then wallow naked in their stolen retirement funds. Let's hope they're up to the game. There's no reason to think protecting the Gordon Geckos of the world is going to become more popular any time soon.