Wonkbook: Does the Senate immigration bill really need 70 votes?

June 25, 2013

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(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

How a bill (maybe) becomes a law, revised Senate edition.

- It needs 51 votes to pass.

- It needs 60 votes to pass a filibuster.

- It needs 70 votes to pass the arbitrary convince-the-House test.

The Senate immigration bill clearly has 51 votes. It clearly has 60 votes. As of last night, it’s not clear it has 70 votes. But it’s also not clear that matters.

The test came on the vote for the Corker-Hoeven amendment, which toughens the bill’s border security measures — “almost overkill,” says Sen. Bob Corker — in order to attract more Republican support. Final tally? 67 “ayes” — which you’ll notice is not quite 70.

But there were only 27 “nays”. A handful of senators weren’t around. So it’s still possible the immigration bill will, in the end, hit 70 votes, if all senators are present and voting.

The question is what 70 votes buys it (80 votes, as everyone knows, means the Senate gets to throw a pizza party at the end of the year). The Gang of Eight theory is that a Senate immigration bill that gets 70 votes will put pressure on the House in a way a Senate immigration bill that gets 60 votes won’t. Why? That’s where things get a bit fuzzy.

The view among the Gang of Eight is that the House simply won’t feel able to resist such an overwhelming bipartisan compromise in the Senate. But there are plenty of skeptics for that view.

“You mean like how the overwhelming Senate vote for the farm bill pressured the House?” Snarked one senior Senate Republican leadership aide. “The same people who are for this bill — business community, mainstream Republicans — were also for a debt deal and that didn’t get done, did it?” Says a Senate Democratic aide. “It makes little, if any, difference,” said a senior aide to the House Republican leadership.

The most plausible path by which the 70 votes matters is if the House can’t move legislation of its own and Boehner needs to decide whether to simply vote on the Senate bill. Perhaps, in that case, the broad bipartisan support for the Senate bill gives Boehner cover to bring it to the floor of the House.

But if the House does manage its own bill, it’s hard to see how the 70 votes matters. There, the 70-vote plan could even backfire. The Senate typically jams the House by passing legislation with 60 votes and then arguing the compromise is so delicate that it can’t be substantially modified. In this case, the House could plausibly argue that the Senate has at least 10 votes to spare (and 19 if there’s no viable filibuster) and so can afford to move towards the House in conference.

It could backfire in another way, too. Everyone in the House agrees that the House bill will have to be measurably to the right of the Senate bill. So every reasonable (or at least non-deal killing) compromise the Senate makes to get 70 votes is one fewer non-deal killing compromise the House can make to show they’ve pulled the Senate bill to the right. And if there are no big non-deal killing compromises available to them, that doesn’t mean they’ll simply pass the Senate bill unchanged. It means they’ll start in on revisions that will kill the deal.

In the end, immigration reform comes down to whether a critical mass of House Republicans want to pass an immigration bill that includes some kind of viable path to citizenship. If that’s the case, then immigration can pass whether it gets 62 votes in the Senate or 67 or 75. But if it’s not, then there’s no vote in the Senate that will be enough for the House.

And that “critical mass” idea is important. There’s an argument going around — one that I’ve bought into at times — that House Speaker John Boehner is the only player that really matters because he can bring something to the floor even if it doesn’t command a majority of his members. But John Lawrence, who served until recently as Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff, is skeptical.

“All this talk about how Boehner could sacrifice his speakership to get a bill is absurd,” he says. “First of all, Speakers don’t ‘sacrifice their speakership.’ That’s not the mentality that got them elected speaker in the first place. But more importantly, there’s no evidence Boehner has the skills to push through something that has the vociferous opposition of a substantial part of his caucus.”

Which is to say, a Hastert rule violation in a world where House Republicans didn’t want to see the Hastert rule violated wouldn’t guarantee the passage of an immigration bill. A lot of House Republicans need to want to get this done if it’s going to get done.

Wonkbook’s Numbers of the Day: 67-27. That, of course, is yesterday’s vote on the border-security amendment from Sens. Corker and Hoeven.

Wonkbook’s Quotation of the Day: “The word ‘bloodbath’ comes to mind.” That’s how Peter Sorrentino, a portfolio manager, described the tumult in financial markets as the Fed has moved towards the exit.

Wonkblog’s Graph of the Day: The Stowe Coal Index, which tracks the share prices of coal companies and has entered into free fall.

Wonkbook’s Top 5 Stories: 1) progress on immigration reform; 2) Obama to speak on green issues; 3) the NSA and the IRS; 4) the tight-money tailspin; and 5) Supreme Court rundown.

1) Top story: That’s one big step for immigration reform

Border-security amendment clears vote. “The effort to reform the nation's immigration laws took another important step forward Monday when a Republican proposal to bolster security along the U.S.-Mexico border cleared a key procedural hurdle in the U.S. Senate by a margin that bodes well for its eventual approval. Senate voted 67 to 27 to proceed to debate on the proposal, exceeding the threshold necessary to move forward, but falling short of the 70 votes that some supporters had hoped it might earn. The vote was one of just a final few steps left before the Senate is expected to give final approval to the bipartisan measure later this week.” Ed O’Keefe in The Washington Post.

@samsteinhp: confused that border hawks will vote against Corker-Hoeven. If the bill’s gonna pass the Senate anyway, why not back the measure?

Who voted how? “Fifteen Senate Republicans ultimately voted to move forward on the Corker-Hoeven amendment: Corker, Hoeven, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Jeff Chiesa of New Jersey, Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Dean Heller of Nevada, Mark Kirk of Illinois, John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi.Hoeven indicated that backers of the proposal could pick up more Republican support if they are able to get their amendments heard -- such as Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).” Seung Min Kim in Politico.

Obama to meet with congressional leaders on immigration. “For the first time in nearly four months, President Obama will meet Tuesday at the White House with the full congressional leadership to discuss the push to overhaul the nation's immigration laws and other issues…The Tuesday afternoon meeting is scheduled to begin about two hours after Obama delivers a major address at Georgetown University.” Philip Rucker in The Washington Post.

Interview: Sen. Jeff Flake on immigration: 'Citizenship ought to be earned and valued.' Ed O’Keefe in The Washington Post.

Interview: Want tough border security? Hope for an awful economy, according to Gordon Hanson. Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Burr, Cornyn and Johanns oppose immigration bill. “Cornyn's decision is not a huge surprise, given that he sponsored a more restrictive border security amendment and voted against the immigration bill in committee. But it does signal that there will be significant dissent when it comes to the Corker-Hoeven compromise…The loss of Johanns is a bigger deal, considering he is retiring after the 2014 election and was seen as a potentially gettable vote.” Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Music recommendations interlude: The Monkees, “Last Train to Clarksville,” 1966 video.

Top op-eds

BERNSTEIN: How did the safety net perform during the recession? “[W]hile people do abuse safety nets -- and not just poor people (think bank bailouts and special tax treatment of multinational corporations) -- I want to see receipt of unemployment insurance, the rolls of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), and so on go up in recessions. In fact, their failure to do so would be a sign that something's very wrong, like an air bag that failed to deploy in a crash.” Jared Bernstein in The New York Times.

KLEIN: Douthat gets D.C. right, then wrong. “Much of the work here is done by bundling all the relevant players into a disappointing, elitist mass Douthat simply calls "Washington." It's "Washington" that's failing. "Washington" that is not "readying, say, payroll tax relief for working-class families." "Washington" where "we're left with the peculiar spectacle of a political class responding to a period of destructive long-term unemployment with an agenda that threatens to help extend that crisis." The use of "Washington" is important because the column would read nonsensically if it broke "Washington" down into individual players.” Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

SOLTAS: Why Wall Street doesn’t trust the Fed. “The monetary exit that markets now anticipate matches the predictions of a “Taylor rule” which sets interest rates based on inflation and unemployment — but only if you believe the inflation and unemployment numbers from the Fed’s forecast. Those forecasts have tended to be too optimistic. Wall Street is expecting the Fed to withdraw its stimulus even if the data disappoint.” Evan Soltas in Bloomberg.

GOODMAN AND KOTLIKOFF: Medicare by the scary numbers. “Take one source of optimism that the trustees are compelled to transmit in their latest report. Its predicted expenditures are based on the assumption built into the law that next Jan. 1 there will be a 25% decrease in the fees that Medicare pays doctors…A second problem does stem from ObamaCare. In order to pay for the expansion of health insurance for the young, the new health law calls for steep cuts in the growth of health-care spending on the elderly. Whereas Medicare spending per person in real terms has been increasing at about the rate of growth of real GDP per person plus two percentage points, the ObamaCare law calls for a spending growth rate of GDP plus 0.04%.” John C. Goodman and Laurence J. Kotlikoff in The Wall Street Journal.

SUNSTEIN: Judicial minimalism triumphs in affirmative action case. “The basic idea is that if a diverse group of justices is able to agree on an opinion, that opinion is more likely to steer clear of intense controversy and avoid the largest theoretical disputes. This, in the chief justice's view, is entirely desirable, as he explained with an aphoristic summary of the minimalist position in constitutional law: "If it is not necessary to decide more to dispose of a case, in my view it is necessary not to decide more." The chief justice added that the "rule of law is strengthened when there is greater coherence and agreement about what the law is."” Cass R. Sunstein in Bloomberg.

Simpsons interlude: Hi, it’s Troy McClure! You may remember me from such films as

2) Obama’s climate change speech is today

Obama will try the kitchen-sink approach to global warming. “There's no longer a grand strategy to solve climate change once and for all. And it's unlikely that Obama will attain any of the sweeping goals he laid out in 2008 -- that would require cooperation from Congress. Instead, the White House will try to use whatever executive power it has to chip away at the problem, little by little, in the years ahead.” Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Coal shares plunge ahead of Obama's climate-change speech. “Shares of U.S. coal mining companies plunged Monday, battered by weak economic data from China, the overall stock market slide and the prospect that President Obama will announce plans for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal plants…Consol Energy shares dropped 5.8 percent,Peabody Energy fell 7.2 percent, Cliffs Natural Resources tumbled 7.6 percent, andAlpha Natural Resources slid 8 percent. Walter Energy, a smaller company, sank 16.1 percent after pulling back on a planned $1.55 billion credit refinancing.” Steven Mufson in The Washington Post.

Obama energy push could loom large in 2014. “The planned carbon emissions crackdown could make the president even more of an anchor on Democrats in deep-red states like West Virginia and Kentucky, where Senate candidates will have no choice but to distance themselves from unpopular policies pushed by the national party. And the new regulations pose a messaging challenge for vulnerable Democratic incumbents already facing competitive Senate races in other energy-rich states, including Alaska, North Carolina and Louisiana.” James Hohmann in Politico.

Does Obama's climate policy launch put Gina McCarthy's EPA nomination in jeopardy? “McCarthy, who heads EPA's air and radiation office, has a history of working with industry and Republican officials to broker compromises on air pollution rules. But that hasn't been enough to win over some key Republican senators, who have portrayed her as the embodiment of Obama's left-leaning environmental policy. Now that the president is proceeding with regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, Senate Republicans are likely to be even tougher on McCarthy, who informed them in April the agency was not drafting such regulations.” Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Supreme Court will review controversial EPA rule. (See further coverage of Court in fifth section.) “The Supreme Court announced Monday it would review the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision to reverse one of the Obama administration's signature air quality policies, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. The move cheered environmentalists, who view the rule as a key tool for forcing coal-fired power plants to install stricter pollution controls. The regulation would have reduced the sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen pollution emitted from coal-fired power plants across 28 Eastern states and the District of Columbia, but the D.C. Circuit ruled 2 to 1 in August the the Environmental Protection Agency had overstepped its authority in issuing a rule that was costly, burdensome and arbitrary.” Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Photography interlude: “34 Amazing Photos of American Cities From 100 Years Ago.”

3) NSA and IRS scandals continue

NSA:

Senators float new surveillance legislation. “Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy introduced the most sweeping bill yet dealing with the fallout over revelations of NSA surveillance of phone records and Internet usage…The bill would cut short the FISA Amendments Act passed just last year that extended the ability of the government to collect records of phone and digital communications through December 2017. Leahy's bill would change the sunset date to June 2015. If the government wanted to sweep up communications records, the bill would require the feds to show the record search as relevant to an authorized investigation and also a link to a "foreign agent, power, or group." It would also require more specificity for roving wiretap requests that can tap the lines of any telephone a targeted suspect uses. The bill would also require a report be made public on government surveillance's effect on Americans' privacy and demand audits of the Patriot Act.” Burgess Everett in Politico.

Obama’s hands-off approach to extraditing Snowden draws criticism. “[S]ome foreign policy experts were more sympathetic to the administration, saying that inserting Obama directly into the negotiations would be folly. It is embarrassing enough that Snowden is on the run, they said; the president's personal involvement would only further risk the United States' credibility abroad. Administration officials have not detailed any actions that Obama has personally taken to bring Snowden to justice.” Philip Rucker in The Washington Post.

Details of Snowden’s Hong Kong stay emerge. “[T]he newly disclosed details of Snowden's stay in Hong Kong indicate that the authorities there, probably acting with the guidance of Beijing, didn't want him to stay in Hong Kong for a long, messy legal process to determine whether he would be extradited. The new information also raises questions about whether the Obama administration could have done more to prevent the former National Security Agencycontractor from slipping away.” Jia Lynn Yang, Peter Finn and Sari Horwitz in The Washington Post.

IRS:

IRS halts political screening of groups. ”The Internal Revenue Service said Monday it was suspending the use of screening criteria of the type that led to heavy-handed scrutiny of tea-party groups, and documents showed that liberal groups also were among those flagged.” John D. McKinnon in The Wall Street Journal.

IRS to make it easier for groups to get tax-exempt status, new chief says. “In his report, Werfel said the IRS has created an Accountability Review Board to determine within 60 days if additional agency personnel should be held accountable for the targeting. A number of officials involved in the targeting were lower-ranking employees in the agency's Cincinnati office. The report also indicated that the agency would grant tax-exempt status to applicants who have been waiting more than 120 days for approval if they certify that they will not engage in excessive political activity in violation of tax-exemption law.” Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

Liberal groups in IRS dragnet, too. ”The instructions that Internal Revenue Service officials used to look for applicants seeking tax-exempt status with "Tea Party" and "Patriots" in their titles also included groups whose names included the words "Progressive" and "Occupy," according to I.R.S. documents released Monday. The documents appeared to back up contentions by I.R.S. officials and some Democrats that the agency did not intend to single out conservative groups for special scrutiny. Instead, the documents say, officials were trying to use "key word" shortcuts to find overtly political organizations.” Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times.

Grassley: IRS paid $42,000 in bonuses to Lois Lerner. “Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a member of the Joint Committee on Taxation, said in a statement last week that Lois Lerner, one of the IRS officials who oversaw the agency's tax-exemption operations, received $42,000 in bonuses since 2009. Grassley said the IRS also awarded $100,000 since 2009 to former IRS acting commissioner Steven Miller, who stepped down under pressure after the agency apologized for its inappropriate behavior, as well as $84,000 to Joseph Grant, the former head of the IRS's tax-exemption division.” Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

Slatepitches interlude: We need to blow up the moon.

4) The tight-money tailspin

Fed officials try to set market at ease. “Federal Reserve officials are pushing back against market perceptions that the U.S. central bank is taking a turn toward tighter monetary policy. In an unusual step Monday, Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, released a statement and held an impromptu conference call with reporters to argue that the Fed is committed to continuing its bond-buying program until the U.S. jobless rate falls further and to keeping short-term interest rates near zero for a long time even after the bond purchases end.” Michael S. Derby in The Wall Street Journal.

…But stocks are sinking in a broad selloff. “The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended down 139.84 points, or 0.9%, to 14659.56, the ninth triple-digit move in stock prices over the past 10 trading sessions. This period of unusual volatility has been spurred by investors reassessing the ability of financial markets to weather a pullback of stimulus measures by the Federal Reserve. A credit crunch in China, and its potential effect on growth in a country that has been fueling the global economy, is adding to the jitters. The selloff across stocks, bonds and commodities since Wednesday, when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke signaled a possible end to stimulus measures, has left investors with virtually no place to hide. The Treasury market is generally seen as a haven for investors but is getting caught up in the selling along with just about everything else. ”The word bloodbath comes to mind,” said Peter Sorrentino, portfolio manager with Huntington Funds, which oversees roughly $15 billion in assets.” Alexandra Scaggs in The Wall Street Journal.

Some unemployed keep losing ground. “Beneath the surface, there are signs the job market is splitting into two. Close to 25% of the short-term unemployed--those out of work for six months or less--find jobs each month, a figure that has shown steady improvement since the recession, though it remains below its long-term average of 30%. The nation’s 4.4 million long-term unemployed haven’t seen similar gains. Only about 10% of them find jobs each month, a number that has hardly budged in the past two years. In a recent experiment, economist Rand Ghayad sent out mock resumes for about 600 job openings; those that showed six months or more of unemployment generated far lower response rates from employers, regardless of the other skills or experience.” Ben Casselman in The Wall Street Journal.

Americans are filing for disability. “Independent experts, however, see substantial evidence that disability insurance increasingly serves as a safety net for people who cannot find jobs - people, that is, who might still have the ability to perform at least some kinds of work. A new research note from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco estimates 40 percent to 60 percent of the growth in disability claims in recent decades is a result of the program's attracting a broader constituency. They note that it has become easier to qualify, as claims increasingly are judged on subjective criteria. And the benefits have become more lucrative, particularly for low-wage workers. The formula is based on average wages, so rising income inequality has increased benefit payments even as the wages of most workers have stagnated.The difference is important because disability insurance is a very sticky kind of safety net. Historically, few people who qualify for disability during downturns return to the work force during rebounds.” Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.

Korea interlude: How to prevent bridge suicides with lights and noise.

5) Rundown on the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court issued six rulings yesterday. Here’s what they said. “It was a bit of a sleepy day at the Supreme Court on Monday. We got a ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which had the potential to be a major affirmative action case, but which actually ended up just getting sent back to the district court. While the Court punted on Fisher, it also didn't rule on Proposition 8, the Defense of Marriage Act, or the Voting Rights Act, pushing back those decisions until tomorrow or the one decision day yet to be scheduled.” Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Court sends Texas affirmative action plan back for further review. “The Supreme Court brokered a compromise on affirmative action in college admissions Monday, telling courts to look more closely at the justifications for such programs but keeping alive for now the use of race to achieve diversity. The court voted 7 to 1 to send the University of Texas's race-conscious admissions plan back for further judicial view and told the lower court to apply the kind of rigorous evaluation that must accompany any government action that considers race.” Robert Barnes in The Washington Post.

Next term, Court will rule on recess appointments. “The case at hand involves Obama's appointment of three members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), but the broader issue concerns the power that presidents throughout history have used to fill their administrations in the face of Senate opposition and inaction. The justices will review a broad ruling by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that upset decades of understanding about the president's recess appointment power. The court ruled that presidents may make recess appointments only between sessions of the Senate -- they generally come at the end of each year -- and not when senators take an intra-session break.” Robert Barnes in The Washington Post.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

One of the worst patents ever just got upheld in court. Timothy B. Lee.

The farm bill died, but hemp may live on. Lydia DePillis.

Ross Douthat gets Washington right, then very wrong. Ezra Klein.

Want tough border security? Hope for an awful economy. Dylan Matthews.

The Supreme Court issued six rulings today. Here's what they said. Dylan Matthews.

Obamacare starts in 99 days. These 99 things need to happen before then. Sarah Kliff.

Et Cetera

Shopping for insurance? The Obama administration wants to lend you a hand. Reed Abelson in The New York Times.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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