Wonkbook: Harry Reid’s bid to save the Senate

November 22, 2013

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(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Texas. But a bit over 52 years ago today, Kennedy changed American politics forever.

When Kennedy entered office, the Senate wasn't the only chamber where a small minority could block the large majority. It could happen in the House, too. The House Rules Committee, which was controlled by arch-segregrationist Howard Smith, could simply refuse to pass a rule on a bill. That kept the bill from going to the floor. It rendered the House a graveyard for civil rights legislation.

One of the most consequential moments in JFK's presidency came when he decided to spend political capital on one of those "process issues" that presidents typically ignore. He partnered with Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Speaker Sam Rayburn to expand the Rules Committee's membership. The battle, a clear proxy for the large civil-rights struggle, was vicious. Rayburn later called it "the worst fight of my life." But it was successful. The Rules Committee was expanded. That expansion made the Civil Rights Act of 1965 — and much else that passed as part of the Great Society — possible.

Kennedy's rules change is largely forgotten today. It wasn't even very well known in Kennedy's time. But it changed the face of America. Rules changes often do.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid forced a rules change that might well prove to be of equal consequence. Technically, his reform of the filibuster is modest: It lifts the 60-vote threshold on all executive-branch nominations and judicial nominations, save for the Supreme Court.

In practice, it is sweeping: By changing the rules mid-session with at least 51 votes (the actual vote Thursday was 52 to 48), Reid unwound the Senate's multi-decade transition from a chamber where majorities ruled into a chamber where only supermajorities could govern. The filibuster is effectively dead, and the majority, to a degree that hasn't been true in years, is back in charge. (For more on this, see nine reasons this will reshape American politics.)

Reid's decision had more than a whiff of hypocrisy about it. In 2005, when Republicans considered a similar change, Reid called it "breaking the rules to change the rules." Of course, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's outraged reaction was no less hypocritical. Back in 2005, he said changing the rules with 51 votes was simply "what the majority in the Senate has often done — use its constitutional authority under article I, section 5, to reform Senate procedure by a simple majority vote.”

The truth is Reid didn't break any rules on Thursday. As McConnell correctly said in 2005, Senate procedure can be reformed by a simple majority vote. What Reid did, rather, was break a norm against making major rules changes with 51 votes. And he didn't do it thoughtlessly. Reid is a fervent Senate institutionalist who has spent years blocking both Democrats and Republicans from changing the filibuster. But he's concluded that the only way to save the Senate is to begin rolling back the radical, revolutionary changes that have been made to it in recent decades.

There was no filibuster at the dawn of the Republic. The practice emerged only by accident: An overhaul of the Senate rulebook deleted a seemingly redundant motion. Decades later, senators realized they'd deleted the only rule that could end debate. But it wasn't a very big deal. Senators did not, as a matter of course, try to gum up the workings of the institution by talking endlessly from the floor. The filibusters that happened were rare, and it wasn't until 1917 that the Senate decided it needed any way to shut them off at all — and even then, you needed 67 votes.

The Senate protected itself much more through norms than rules. The filibuster could've been used to plunge the entire chamber into organized dysfunction. But it just wasn't done.

And then something went wrong:


The modern Senate is a very different place than the Senate of yore. And many of those changes — including the startling rise of the filibuster — can be traced to a single cause: party polarization. Before the two parties became reasonably unified and disciplined ideological combatants, filibusters were rarely used as a tactic of interparty warfare. The parties were too diverse for that: each political party had some members who supported and opposed the bills in question, and so they had no ability to organize a filibuster.

In the mid-20th Century, filibusters were mainly used by the Southern bloc to stop anti-lynching and civil rights bills — but the Southerners knew that if they overused the filibuster, it would be eliminated. So filibusters were seldom seen on non-civil rights issues.

It was only as the parties polarized and began working against each other in a more organized fashion that the filibuster became a constant presence in the minority's efforts to undermine the majority. That change in norms meant a profound change in the Senate: It turned the chamber from a body where majorities ruled into a body where only supermajorities could rule.

As Gregory Koger, a University of Miami political scientist who researches the filibuster, told me: “Over the last 50 years, we have added a new veto point in American politics. It used to be the House, the Senate and the president, and now it’s the House, the president, the Senate majority and the Senate minority. Now you need to get past four veto points to pass legislation. That’s a huge change of constitutional priorities. But it’s been done, almost unintentionally, through procedural strategies of party leaders.” (Here's Koger on what happens next.)

The fundamental problem of today's Senate is that rules designed for cooperation are curdling in an era where polarization has made that cooperation impossible. On Thursday, Reid and the Democrats began rewriting the rulebook for a polarized age.

My colleague Dana Milbank laments the action as a "naked power grab," and he's right: It is a lamentable power grab. But so, too, was the rise in minority filibustering that led to it. It's lamentable power grabs all the way down. It would've been better if the rules could've been fixed collaboratively, but if that kind of cooperation was possible in today's Senate, then the fixes wouldn't be necessary in the first place.

That said, the Democrats didn't grab much power here. This change is happening in 2013, with a Republican House, not 2009, with a Democratic majority. The truth is there's a lot of upside for Republicans in how this went down.

It came at a time when Republicans control the House and are likely to do so for the duration of President Obama's second term, so the weakening of the filibuster will have no effect on the legislation Democrats can pass. The electoral map, the demographics of midterm elections, and the political problems bedeviling Democrats make it very likely that Mitch McConnell will be majority leader come 2015, and then he will be able to take advantage of a weakened filibuster. And, finally, if and when Republicans recapture the White House and decide to do away with the filibuster altogether, Democrats won't have much of an argument when they try to stop them.

So the question here isn't so much about the change in power now as it is in the change in power over time. That change doesn't clearly favor Democrats or Republicans. Rather, it favors majorities over minorities. And a corrective on that front has been overdue for decades. The only thing worse than a Senate where the majority has the power to govern is one where it doesn't.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 37 percent. That's an estimate of the share of the total volume of U.S. stock trades that occur in "dark pools." Woah, right? Regulators may be wading in soon. Learn more.

Wonkbook's Quotation of the Day: “I DO NOT WANT A REPEAT OF WHAT HAPPENED NEAR THE END OF DECEMBER 2005, WHERE MEDICARE.GOV HAD A MELTDOWN,” wrote Henry Chao, the official in charge of HealthCare.gov. “THIS IS TO GET YOUR ATTENTION, IF I DIDN’T HAVE IT ALREADY.” He blasted out that all-caps message on September 26, just five days before the Web site went live.

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: The history of the filibuster, in one graph.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) a historic moment for the Senate; (2) everything's coming up Yellen; (3) as if Obamacare didn't have enough problems already; (4) watching Warsaw on climate talks; and (5) 50 years after JFK.

1. Top story: The Senate went nuclear yesterday. Now what?

The Senate ended the filibuster for most presidential nominations. "Senate Democrats took the dramatic step Thursday of eliminating filibusters for most nominations by presidents, a power play they said was necessary to fix a broken system but one that Republicans said will only rupture it further. Democrats used a rare parliamentary move to change the rules so that federal judicial nominees and executive-office appointments can advance to confirmation votes by a simple majority of senators, rather than the 60-vote supermajority that has been the standard for nearly four decades.... In the long term, the rule change represents a substantial power shift in a chamber that for more than two centuries has prided itself on affording more rights to the minority party than any other legislative body in the world. Now, a president whose party holds the majority in the Senate is virtually assured of having his nominees approved, with far less opportunity for political obstruction." Paul Kane in The Washington Post.

Explainer: Everything you need to know about Thursday’s filibuster changeDylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Must-read interview: The world’s leading filibuster expert on what happened today and what to expect nextDylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Nine reasons the filibuster change is a huge deal. "The filibuster now exists in what you might call an unstable equilibrium. It theoretically forces a 60-vote threshold on important legislation. But it can — and now, in part, has —been undone with 51 votes. Its only protection was the perceived norm against using the 51-vote option. Democrats just blew that norm apart. The moment one party or the other filibusters a consequential and popular bill, that's likely the end of the filibuster, permanently." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

How Reid did it. "[A]fter several weeks of counting votes, Reid was still encountering skepticism even among his confidants as late as Monday evening. He bucked up his troops ahead of the hugely controversial move...As some of his fellow Democratic senators remained on the fence, Reid called in a heavy hitter to close the deal: President Barack Obama, according to sources familiar with the matter. Obama personally called senators on Wednesday to back the move, and Reid ultimately won the vote on a slim margin, 52-48." Manu Raju in Politico.

@dcbigjohn: If Democrats think this filibuster rules change won't come back to bite them in the ass, they should disabuse themselves of that notion.

Why Reid did it. "He was tired of making deals with McConnell, only to see their spirit violated by yet more obstruction, allies say. The two reached an informal agreement in January that was supposed to lead to fewer filibuster threats, and another deal in July that paved the way for several executive-branch nominations...Reid and other Democrats also concluded that Republicans, if they did retake the majority, would likely change the rules to give themselves more power if Democrats hadn't done it already." Molly Ball in The Atlantic.

Etymological explainer: Where the word "filibuster" comes from. Spoiler alert: Pirates are involved. Megan Buerger in The Wall Street Journal.

What it's like to be a Republican senator right now. "“When you start, it’s like wars — there’s no end to this. I don’t know where it goes,” says Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “In my view this is the most important and most dangerous restructuring of Senate rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote them at the beginning of our country,” Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee says...Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona says he’s afraid that Republicans will be unable to resist using the same power. “That’s what I fear. I fear that once Republicans get the majority it’s very tough to tell the base that you’re going to diminish your own authority,” he says, adding that he expects Reid to eventually kill the filibuster for legislation as well." Jonathan Strong in National Review Online.

Senate’s filibuster rule change should help Obama achieve key second-term priorities. "The Senate vote Thursday to lower the barriers for presidential nominations should make it easier for President Obama to accomplish key second-term priorities, including tougher measures on climate change and financial regulation, that have faced intense opposition from Republicans in Congress. The move to allow a simple majority vote on most executive and judicial nominees also sets the stage for Obama to appoint new top officials to the Federal Reserve and other key agencies — likely leading to more aggressive action to stimulate the economy and housing market. And it frees Obama to make changes to his Cabinet without the threat of long delays in the Senate before the confirmation of nominees." Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

@BCAppelbaum: On a more serious note, the change in filibuster rules makes it a lot easier for Obama to restock the Fed with stimulus supporters.

Senate’s filibuster decision could reshape influential D.C. federal appeals court. "The decision by Senate Democrats on Thursday to change the rules for confirming judicial nominees could dramatically reshape an obscure federal appeals court that renders some of the most influential legal decisions in the country. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — dubbed the D.C. Circuit for short — was at the center of the Senate fight after Republicans had blocked three of President Obama’s nominees to the panel. Those three are now likely to be approved by a simple majority in the Senate.... It is often described as the most important court in the land after the Supreme Court. And for the past two decades, the D.C. appellate court has generally been considered favorable to business, skeptical of regulation and supportive of broad executive powers to wage war and ensure national security." Carol D. Leonnig in The Washington Post.

Explainer: More on why that court matters so muchBrad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Will the filibuster-reform nuke hurt a budget deal? "The bitterly partisan vote today that changed the Senate rules to allow judicial and executive branch nominations through with a simple majority vote, makes even a small budget deal less likely, lawmakers say.... In the special budget committee, scheduled to finish its work in three weeks, and there were hopes for a small deal to partially replace the across the board cuts from sequestration. That's only possible with some Republican support which will be more difficult after today's vote." Albert R. Hunt in Bloomberg.

@hillhulse: Sen Harkin, long an advocate of filibuster reform, is exultant on the Senate floor. "I have waited 18 years for this."

The Senate's got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell. I mean, more partisan intrigue. "[T]he strong-arm move by Senate Democrats on Thursday to limit filibusters could usher in an era of rank partisan warfare beyond even what Americans have seen in the past five years.... Republicans, wounded and eager to show they have not been stripped of all power, are far more likely to unify against the Democrats who humiliated them in such dramatic fashion.... Republicans may not be able to muster the votes to block Democrats on procedure, but they can force every nomination into days of debate between every procedural vote in the Senate book — of which there will be many. And legislation, at least for now, is still very much subject to the filibuster...Republican senators who were willing to team with Democrats on legislation like an immigration overhaul, farm policy and a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act will probably think twice in the future." Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times.

@chrislhayes: We should just implement the Merkley/Udall reforms, require the filibustering minority to keep 40 ppl on floor and/or talking to filibuster

One huge effect of filibuster reform: Obama can actually fire people. "[T]he constant use of the filibuster against political appointments made it extraordinarily difficult for the White House to fire anyone because they didn't know whether they'd be able to appoint a replacement -- or, if they could appoint a replacement, who Republicans would actually accept. And the more political controversy there was around an issue the more dangerous a personnel change became." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

@daveweigel: Filibuster rule change also means that Obama could replace Sebelius without worrying about GOP filibuster. HINT. HINT.

This is surely a great day for Sens. Udall and Merkley. "Ever since they arrived in the Senate, Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall have had one huge, seemingly insurmountable goal: To change Senate rules on the filibuster. On Thursday, they won.... Filibuster reform has long been a marquee issue for Merkley (Ore.) and Udall (N.M.), who are part of a new breed of Senate reformers who have never served in the minority. Now, they’re looking to expand their change to filibuster rules governing legislation — but that’s going to be a much harder sell." Burgess Everett and Seung Min Kim in Politico. 

BINDER: What the Senate will be like when the nuclear dust settles. "The mostly likely effect will be felt when the president’s party controls the Senate. Before today’s change, presidents (typically, although not always) chose nominees with an eye to whether the nominees could secure 60 votes for cloture. With only a majority required to bring the Senate to a confirmation vote, there will be little incentive for presidents to consult. I think the biggest potential effect will be visible with appointments to the federal bench." Sarah Binder in The Washington Post.

@dylanmatt: Only ending the filibuster for nominees and not legislation is hypertimid incrementalist bs.

WEIGEL: How Dems stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb. "In May 2012, Republicans blocked an attempt to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank.... In retrospect, that was the moment progressives brought their party on board with the biggest majority-rule congressional reform since the 1970s. Every one of Reid’s procedural moves since then has broken the minority’s power to obstruct legislation. This wasn’t just a case of broken trust between Democrats and Republicans — though that was part of it. This was a victory for a movement that believes its greatest threat comes from unfriendly courts and minority obstruction." David Weigel in Slate.

CHAIT: Why Dems dropped the nuke. "The main reason for this odd, partial clawback of the filibuster is that President Obama has no real legislative agenda that can pass Congress.... That reality means two things. The first is that President Obama’s second-term agenda runs not through Congress but through his own administrative agencies. His appointees are writing rules for financial reform, housing policy and — the potentially enormous one — climate emissions." Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.

@conor64: Can we take this opportunity to retire the inane “nuclear” terminology that it never made sense for the press to adopt? #filibuster

DICKERSON: The old Senate was already dead. "[T]oday's change was merely a rule that codified an established fact: The Senate club is no longer what it once was. Or, as Byrd might put it, today's change made what was de facto now de jure.... The traditions are still there — senators are not supposed to refer to each other by first name — but as the memories about political slights grow longer than the memories of maintaining time-honored institutional traditions, the place has changed." John Dickerson in Slate.

PHILIP KLEIN: This change is unlimited. "Now that the taboo against exercising the "nuclear option" has been removed, it will inevitably be triggered again when the 60-vote threshold in the Senate gets in the way of the majority party accomplishing what it wants. If Republicans control the Senate and presidency again and Democrats try to hold up a Supreme Court nominee, there's no reason why they wouldn't use the Reid precedent to obliterate the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees, too." Philip Klein in The Washington Examiner.

@reihan: This complicates life for future GOP presidents -- forthrightly anti-Roe judicial nominees have a much better shot post-filibuster.

BEUTLER: Bring on the liberal activist judges. "[I]t also means liberals ought to now devote more resources toward creating a real progressive counterweight to the conservative legal establishment.... The liberal legal establishment is so scrutinized and subject to so many litmus tests that it has self-selected for timid or self-censoring thinkers, at least in part because it was assumed “liberal activists” would be blocked, and thus never nominated. That limiting force is gone now. And the hope is its absence draws a new generation of legal minds out of the shadows and onto the bench sooner than later." Brian Beutler in Salon.

@daveweigel: This filibuster rule change is good news for Obama's likely next SCOTUS nominee, Prof. Bill Ayers.

BERNSTEIN: The nitty-gritty of it. "How will the new Senate actually work out in practice on nominations? Will Senators still be able to put holds on nominations when it isn’t backed up by the need for a super-majority to move to a final vote? It’s worth noting that the filibuster/cloture procedure was not eliminated (at least if I understand correctly); instead, the number for cloture was dropped to a majority. Therefore, an objection can still slow things down for several days. Of course, now that the precedent has been set, that could be eliminated as well, presumably." Jonathan Bernstein in The Washington Post.

WALDMAN: Don't believe Republican cries of vengeance. "The Republican party of today is not only ideologically radical but procedurally radical as well. They've taken virtually every opportunity they could to upend whatever rules and norms stood in the way of them getting what they want. Let's say that it's 2017 or 2021, and they've won the presidency and the Senate. Can anyone believe that if on this day in 2013 the Democrats decided to keep the filibuster for judicial nominations, Republicans would then do the same out of a sense of fair play? " Paul Waldman in The American Prospect.

Music recommendations interlude: Green Day, "Minority," 2000.

Top opinion

KLEIN: Obamacare's failings undermine Republican goals. "There’s a lazy but popular analysis of U.S. politics that holds that liberals need the government to work while conservatives benefit when it fails. That notion woefully underestimates the real-world implications of conservative goals. In their ambition to reformulate every major government program, Republicans have embraced changes with greater complexity and scope than anything Democrats now promote. An America in which the federal government can successfully run Medicaid but can’t build functional exchanges has no place for Ryan’s far-reaching reforms. An America in which government can’t alter the benefits it currently bestows on citizens without retreating from the political backlash is a dead end for contemporary conservatism." Ezra Klein in Bloomberg.

KRUGMAN: Expand Social Security. "[T]he elderly poverty rate is highly likely to rise sharply in the future, as the failure of America’s private pension system takes its toll. When you look at today’s older Americans, you are in large part looking at the legacy of an economy that is no more...[W]e’re looking at a looming retirement crisis, with tens of millions of Americans facing a sharp decline in living standards at the end of their working lives. For many, the only thing protecting them from abject penury will be Social Security." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

WESSEL: Is forward guidance really a thing? Can the Fed trust it? "The use of forward guidance, increasingly popular with central bankers around the world, is tricky. First, there are a lot of moving parts. As former Fed staffer Peter Fisher observes, markets are trying to understand (1) what will prompt the Fed to begin tapering bond buying, (2) how rapidly it will do that, (3) when it will stop buying bonds, (4) how long after that it expects to raise short-term rates and (5) how fast rates will rise. And then there's the issue of whether the Fed links its plans to the calendar or to economic indicators. It tried and abandoned the first in December 2012; it's now trying the second but finding the choice of indicators difficult, in part because it sees the easy-to-understand unemployment rate as a misleading job-market gauge." David Wessel in The Wall Street Journal.

RICHARDSON: America should not try to keep its shale gas to itself. "[T]here will be an additional significant geopolitical benefit from exporting LNG. Russia continues to use gas as a diplomatic tool in many parts of central and eastern Europe through its domination of the commercial energy market. By making larger amounts of gas available on the global market, the US will help reduce the political influence exerted by Russia." Bill Richardson in The Financial Times.

CHEN: Risk corridors, or Obamacare's new blank check. "Obama recently told insurers that the government’s financial support has limits. But the text of the law is clear, and it places no limits on how much this program may pay insurers. It gives, in essence, a blank check to the secretary of health and human services to make payments to insurers to cover their losses. Insurers may very well need it." Lanhee Chen in Bloomberg.

SWAGEL: The optimist's case for America. "It’s not that we’ve solved our fiscal problems or avoided the next shutdown or debt ceiling debacle...[M]y policy working group includes a sizable contingent of Europeans, and listening to their discussion of economic policy making in the euro zone makes clear just how much progress the United States has made since the financial crisis flared in the summer of 2007...[T]he United States has taken at least some positive steps while continental Europe has virtually wasted six years." Phillip Swagel in The New York Times.

STRASSEL: The Republican healthcare opportunity. ""You can't fight something with nothing," muses Tom Price, the Republican for Georgia's Sixth District. That adage, which the surgeon-turned-congressman is now repeating to any colleague who will listen, is gaining steam within the broader GOP.... The GOP also has built up a surprisingly rich body of those policy reforms. This has been a longtime in the making — not to mention hard and unrecognized work for many of the trailblazers." Kimberely A. Strassel in The Wall Street Journal.

FRANKEL: The dollar and its rivals. "The International Monetary Fund’s most recent statistics suggest, unexpectedly, another pause in the dollar’s long-term decline. According to the IMF, the dollar’s share in foreign-exchange reserves stopped falling in 2010 and has been flat since then. If anything, the share is up slightly thus far in 2013.... To try to explain the recent stabilization of the dollar’s status, one might note something that the last three years have in common with the previous period of temporary reversal from 1992 to 2000: striking improvements in the US budget deficit." Jeffrey Frankel in Project Syndicate.

Happy Thanksgiving interlude: An interesting way to carve a turkey (by gunshot).

2. Everything's coming up Yellen

Senate banking panel approves Yellen for Federal Reserve chairmanship. "The Senate banking committee approved Janet Yellen’s nomination to lead the Federal Reserve on Thursday as three Republicans broke party ranks to support her confirmation...The committee approved Yellen’s nomination 14-8, and it will now head to the full Senate for consideration." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Janet Yellen’s confirmation looks like smooth sailing. "Well, that was anticlimactic.... Her nomination will now go before the full Senate, and there is every reason to think she will be easily confirmed. Yellen won over three of the 10 Republicans on the committee, with favorable votes from Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Mark Kirk (Illinois), lawmakers whose respect for Yellen's long experience and wise temperament apparently overruled misgivings about the Fed's easy money policies." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

Interview: Tony West negotiated that $13 billion JPMorgan settlement. Here’s what he has to say about it. Danielle Douglas in The Washington Post.

Important fin-reg news: U.S. banks and exchanges discuss limit to ‘dark pool’ trading. "The proposal would require brokers to offer public markets their best available price to buy or sell a stock before they could trade that price at off-exchange venues, people familiar with the talks said...These people added the idea had yet to gain broad support among exchanges, banks or the Securities and Exchange Commission, which would have to approve any such rule, but that it would be brought up as an alternative to a proposal put forward earlier this year by exchanges that failed to gain traction.... Rosenblatt Securities estimates that more than 37 per cent of all US stock trades are now executed at off-exchange venues run by brokers." Arash Massoudi in The Financial Times.

U.S. to sell remainder of GM stake by year-end. "The Treasury Department on Thursday said it planned to sell its remaining 31.1 million shares in the Detroit auto maker by year-end, the final step in winding down the 61% stake it took with taxpayer money at the height of the global financial crisis. In the final tally, the deal will have cost taxpayers about $10.4 billion, based on the company's current $38.12 share price. The U.S. so far has recouped $38.4 billion of the $50 billion initially invested and the coming sales would raise another $1.2 billion at the current share price." Damian Paletta and Jeff Bennett in The Wall Street Journal.

Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac attract investor groups. "Investor groups are scooping up shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and even offering to buy core pieces of their businesses, complicating legislative efforts to shut down the two mortgage giants. Some Capitol Hill lawmakers have been clamoring to shutter the companies ever since the government seized them at the height of the 2008 housing crisis. President Obama also has publicly called for an end to the two institutions." Dina ElBoghdady and Danielle Douglas in The Washington Post.

New jobless claims drop. "Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 21,000 to a seasonally adjusted 323,000, the Labor Department said. Economists had forecast a drop in the newly jobless to just 335,000, and some said that the Veterans Day holiday last week could have contributed to some of the decline. But the department said no special factors affected the data, which covered the survey period for the government’s report on employment in November. A four-week moving average of jobless claims meant to iron out week-to-week volatility fell 6,750 to 338,500." Reuters.

Nostalgia is stupid interlude: Why 2013 is way better than 1963.

3. More Obamacare problems for you to worry about this weekend

Cancellations are coming for millions more. "Millions of people are expected to lose their employer-based healthcare coverage over the next decade, according to business surveys and estimates by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). By 2016, the CBO has projected that 6 million fewer people will receive employer-based health insurance compared with this year. The estimate includes those who could obtain coverage through their work but choose not to." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

U.S. unveils letters insurers must send about health plans. "On Thursday, the federal government unveiled sample letters that insurance companies will be required to send to anyone seeking to renew one of those policies. The letters are blunt, declaring that the insurance that is about to be renewed “will NOT provide all of the rights and protections of the health care law.” Renewal letters sent by insurance companies will have to list all the deficiencies in the policy." Michael D. Shear in The New York Times.

Want to debate Obamacare’s cancellations? You need to see this study first. "About 15 million people currently purchase health insurance on their own, using the individual market. And about 70 percent of them -- about 10.8 million people -- will qualify for the financial help buying coverage under the health-care law, according to a new study out Thursday from Families USA. Their analysis suggests that many Americans receiving cancellation notices would receive assistance through the health overhaul, either by qualifying for subsidies to purchase a private plan or through Medicaid, the public program that serves low-income Americans." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Three things we learned from Thursday’s Obamacare update. "There will be no Thanksgiving/Hannukah/Thanksgivvuah miracle. While the federal government has promised again and again that the Web site will "work smoothly for the vast majority of users" by the end of November, the people doing the fixing don't see this as an especially crucial deadline. In other words: Do not expect a "mission accomplished" banner. "There is not a corner being turned but continued progress made week by week," Medicare spokeswoman Julie Bataille said. One reporter asked if something would be done to mark the end of the month. "We'll keep you posted," Bataille responded." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

We are just beginning to find out about the chaos that broke out in the days before October 1. "Federal officials, seeing that the HealthCare.gov website was failing tests in the days before it was supposed to go live, expressed alarm as they realized that if they did not get the problems fixed they were going to be responsible for a public relations disaster, emails released Thursday evening by congressional investigators showed...“I DO NOT WANT A REPEAT OF WHAT HAPPENED NEAR THE END OF DECEMBER 2005, WHERE MEDICARE.GOV HAD A MELTDOWN,” Henry Chao, the chief digital architect of the federal online marketplace, wrote — using all capital letters — to dozens of his agency colleagues on Sept. 26, five days before the planned Oct. 1 start-up. “THIS IS TO GET YOUR ATTENTION, IF I DIDN’T HAVE IT ALREADY.” The emails, released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, do not fundamentally change the understanding of what was happening in the final days before the site went live." Eric Lipton in The New York Times.

Doctors will be paid less in Obamacare. A lot less. "UnitedHealth Group Inc. sent some New York City physicians contract amendments as recently as this month setting rates well below what doctors normally see from private insurance, including less than $40 for a typical office visit and about $20 for reading a mammogram, according to confidential documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal....Some of United's rates fall close to what the state Medicaid program for low-income people pays for the same services. The fees for some office visits are less than half of what doctors in the city say they receive for treating people covered by employer-sponsored insurance...[In a survey of doctors,] 37% said the rates offered were lower than Medicare, and 18% said they were lower than Medicaid rates, according to the survey." Christopher Weaver and Melinda Beck in The Wall Street Journal.

Obamacare is seeing success in California. "Nearly 80,000 people have enrolled in health plans through California’s online marketplace, at a rate of several thousand a day in November — a sizable increase over a month ago, state officials said on Thursday. Especially encouraging, officials said, was the enrollment of young people...Shortly after the numbers were released, the board of Covered California, the state exchange, voted against going along with a proposal by President Obama to consider renewing previously canceled plans, saying the move would undermine the state marketplace’s growing success." Katie Thomas and Andrew Pollack in The New York Times.

...Even as it is deepening divisions between Republican governors. "At the annual meeting here of the nation’s Republican governors, the ones who are eyeing presidential runs in 2016 say they oppose the health care law. But there is sharp disagreement among those who have helped carry out the law and those who remain entrenched in their opposition. These early divisions reveal not only the difficult calculations of ambitious Republican politicians as they look to the next presidential campaign, but also the complexities of being a governor rather than a lawmaker at a time when the party’s base is hostile to those who cooperate with Democrats." Jonathan Martin in The New York Times.

Poll: There is a 7-percentage-point spread in support when you call it "Obamacare" versus when you call it the "Affordable Care Act." Mario Trujillo in The Hill.

The U.S. ranks 26th for life expectancy, right behind Slovenia. "[Y]ou can actually expect to live about eight years longer in the United States right now than you would have in 1970. But our life expectancy is growing a lot more slowly than other countries. This 213-page, graph-laden OECD report tells the story of why. It shows the United States as a country that is spending tons and tons on health care--but getting way less than other countries out of that investment. It exposes a country that's really great at buying fancy medical technologies, but not so fantastic at using those medical technologies to extend life. It is, in short, the story of why our health care system is so screwed up." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

John Boehner, welcome to Obamacare. "About an hour after Speaker John Boehner’s office said he couldn’t sign up for Obamacare coverage on the District of Columbia’s exchange, his office said he’s now officially enrolled." Jason Millman and Paige Winfield Cunningham in Politico.

We are all terrified of being caught on camera in just this way interlude: Member of Australian Parliament eats his hair.

4. Climate-change talks walk into a Pole

What's going on in Warsaw. "Rich countries are still not pledging enough money to begin financing a shift to a cleaner global economy, the UN has warned, while environmental groups stormed out of climate talks in Warsaw in protest at sluggish progress...The Polish summit has underscored deep strains between wealthier states – which want to leverage public funds with private-sector participation – and developing nations, which want the money to come from rich country budgets." Jan Cienski in The Financial Times.

U.S. and China find convergence on climate issues. "The countries are driven by compelling domestic constraints as well as a desire not to be seen by other nations as superpolluting superpowers that scuttled an international deal. China suffers from choking pollution produced by its hundreds of coal-fired power plants, and it has invested billions of dollars in alternative energy sources to power its growing cities. The Obama administration, facing court orders and pressure from environmental and public health groups, is writing rules to clean up existing coal-burning power plants and essentially ban the construction of new ones." David Jolly and Chris Buckley in The New York Times.

Toyota shows off fuel-cell vehicle. "Hydrogen-powered cars are finally being readied for their Prius moment — at least, that is what promoters of the environmentally friendly technology hope...Toyota, maker of the Prius, the first hybrid vehicle to achieve mass-market acceptance, on Wednesday unveiled a concept version of a hydrogen fuel-cell car that it plans to begin selling “around 2015,” as the company put it...Honda was set to introduce a concept version of a new car it plans to introduce in 2015. Hyundai, which is based in South Korea, says it intended to beat both of its Japanese rivals to market next year." Eric Pfanner in The New York Times.

What the greens lost in Leyte. "When Typhoon Haiyan barreled across Leyte Island almost two weeks ago with a tsunami-like storm surge and nearly tornado-strength winds, killing thousands of people and effortlessly tearing the roofs off homes, it also damaged the crucial geothermal operations here. For many in the Philippines, the damage here exemplifies a broader paradox: A storm consistent with some scientists’ warnings about climate change has done tremendous damage to an island that is one of the world’s biggest success stories of renewable energy, and to a country that has contributed almost nothing to the global accumulation of greenhouse gases." Keith Bradsher in The New York Times.

This cannot possibly be real life interlude: Ron Burgundy is responsible for a major turnaround in sales of Dodge Durangos.

5. 50 years after JFK

Kennedy's death marked the rise of domestic turbulence. "[T]his narrative [of Kennedy in Camelot] and the anniversary reverie have obscured the deeper message sent and received on Nov. 22, 1963. In fact, America had already become a divided, dangerous place, with intimations of anarchic disorder. Beneath its gleaming surfaces, a spore had been growing, a mass of violent energies, coiled and waiting to spring." Sam Tanenhaus in The New York Times.

Primary sources: Memories and newspapers from that dayAdam Clymer in The New York Times.

A plaza called Dealey: The birthplace of the JFK mystery that will never die. "Dealey Plaza is a depression. It’s a shallow basin on the western edge of downtown, framed by concrete structures called pergolas and peristyles that were built by the Works Progress Administration. Designed as a gateway to the city, the plaza is more of an ode to the automobile, because the broad lawn is sliced by three streets: Elm, Main and Commerce. They slope from east to west and converge beneath a rail line in what is known as the triple underpass. That’s where President and Mrs. Kennedy were headed, on Elm, when the ghastly thing happened." Joel Achenbach in The Washington Post.

Why we don't need another JFK. "There are many reasons to wish John Kennedy had dodged those rifle shots in Dallas 50 years ago this week. One that’s rarely mentioned is how his martyrdom raised expectations for future presidents that are nearly impossible to meet. Liberals, who put so much faith in federal power, have been particularly reluctant to free themselves of that burden...[T]he assassination instantly transformed him into a fallen hero, a man whose ideals seem beyond reproach and whose life and image endlessly beguile and titillate. To paraphrase what the critic Greil Marcus once wrote about America, JFK’s reputation is too much for presidents to live up to and too much to escape." Michael Kazin in The New Republic.

As he filmed, Abraham Zapruder knew instantly that President Kennedy was dead. "Seconds after the shots were fired, he screamed, “They killed him!” He told bystanders. He called his son in Washington, who had heard that Kennedy was wounded, and said, “No, he’s dead.” An anguished Zapruder was certain of this before almost anyone else because he had watched the assassination through the viewfinder of his wind-up home-movie camera. “It was terrible,” he told his business partner minutes later. “I saw his head come off.”" Michael E. Ruane in The Washington Post.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

The D.C. area had slower income growth than any other major metro area last year. Here’s whyNeil Irwin.

Everything you need to know about Thursday’s filibuster changeDylan Matthews.

The world’s leading filibuster expert on what happened today and what to expect nextDylan Matthews.

One huge effect of filibuster reform: Obama can actually fire peopleEzra Klein.

The D.C. Circuit is the court at the center of the filibuster fight. Here’s why it mattersBrad Plumer.

Three things we learned from Thursday’s Obamacare updateSarah Kliff.

Can this mega hedge-funder enlist Washington in his campaign against HerbalifeLydia DePillis.

Tony West negotiated that $13 billion JPMorgan settlement. Here’s what he has to say about it. Danielle Douglas.

Nine reasons the filibuster change is a huge deal. Ezra Klein.

It’s official: The Senate just got rid of part of the filibusterBrad Plumer.

Want to debate Obamacare’s cancellations? You need to see this study firstSarah Kliff.

Janet Yellen’s confirmation looks like smooth sailingNeil Irwin.

Here’s what Harry Reid would have to do to change the filibusterBrad Plumer.

The U.S. ranks 26th for life expectancy, right behind SloveniaSarah Kliff.

Et Cetera

Boehner says that immigration reform is not, in fact, deadSeung Min Kim in Politico.

Negotiators say they’ll continue to work on budget deal to replace sequesterLori Montgomery in The Washington Post.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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Sarah Kliff | November 21, 2013