By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 10:54 PM
On Wednesday afternoon, the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate did something that sounds odd: He set himself up to lose an important vote.
Then he did it again, on another key issue.
And Thursday he'll do it two more times.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) planned votes where his favored bills were expected to fail. For Reid, failure is actually the point. He wants to put Republicans on record as blocking all four.
On Wednesday, he took up seniors' benefits and collective- bargaining rights for police and firefighters' unions, and on Thursday he will call votes on an immigration bill that would assist people who were brought to the United States illegally as children, and legislation that would provide health-care benefits for responders to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
These "test votes" are a sign of the sclerotic state of Congress, clogged by filibuster threats. Usually, it is the people out of power who resort to grand, futile gestures.
Now - in a political gamble - it's the guys in charge.
"Just because the party of 'Just say no' has been blocking all these initiatives, it doesn't mean we're not going to try," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid. "At some point, you've got to take a stand, and let the chips fall where they may."
Senate Democrats, who hold a majority in the chamber, held their last "test vote" on Saturday - two, actually. The first proposal called for an end to tax cuts, passed under President George W. Bush, on income greater than $250,000 for a family.
Democrats needed 60 senators to agree. They got just 53.
Then Democratic leaders staged a vote to let the tax cuts expire only for income of more than $1 million per year for a family. That failed, too.
In theory, these votes were supposed to demonstrate that Republicans were favoring the rich at the expense of the middle class.
In practice, however, it demonstrated that Senate Democrats weren't strong enough to get what they wanted.
On Wednesday, however, Senate Democrats set out to use the same tactic.
Test votes have worked before, said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University. Civil rights advocates, for instance, used them to attract attention to their cause: By showing their weakness in Congress, they gained public sympathy and strength.
But there is a risk.
"The question is . . . who gets blamed when they fail?" Binder said. "More often than not, it goes that the majority gets blamed for failing to govern, more than the blame gets passed to the minority."
Before the votes began, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) jabbed at Democrats for holding votes they knew they'd lose.
"They don't even intend to pass these items," McConnell said on the Senate floor. He compared the process to theater: "Are we here to perform, or are we here to legislate?"
The four measures at issue are:
l A bill that would send $250 checks to Social Security recipients who face a second consecutive year without a cost-of-living increase, a proposal that fell short in a House vote Wednesday. The Senate voted 53 to 45 - seven short of the needed 60 votes - on a measure to bring the bill to the floor for debate.
l A bill that would require states to give police and firefighters' unions "adequate" collective bargaining rights. This has been criticized as trampling on states' autonomy. That proposal failed in the Senate Wednesday on a 55 to 43 vote.
l The DREAM Act, a proposal that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to this country as children and grew up to attend college or serve in the military. Critics say the legislation would amount to a kind of amnesty for lawbreakers.
l A bill that would provide long-term medical care for men and women who suffered health problems while responding to the Sept. 11 attacks or helping to clean up the wreckage. It has been attacked for its multibillion-dollar cost.
In each case, the Senate vote is not to approve or reject the bills. Instead, it is something far more confusing: a vote to end a filibuster - the Senate tradition where a bill's opponents can block it by standing up and talking themselves hoarse. Except now, the Senate does not usually require the stand-up-and-talk part.
Like nuclear war, a filibuster need only be threatened. To beat that threat, Reid needs 60 votes.
And no one expected he would have them.
So will the bills' supporters be pleased that he made the effort?
"What it shows is that his ability to lead has been severely impaired, over the last several months," said James Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, which supports the Sept. 11 bill and is neutral on the collective-bargaining bill (the organization believes that Reid has watered it down severely).
Reid's strategy of a stage-managed failure, Pasco said, wouldn't exactly increase the order's faith in him.
"It's going to make us more cautious than we already were in throwing our support and our trust behind an individual" on Capitol Hill, Pasco said.
But Thomas Mann, a congressional analyst at the Brookings Institution, said this is the best option for Reid.
Mann said that someone needs to point out how often the filibuster threat is used now. In the mid-1980s, Congress voted on filibuster threats only about 10 times a year.
In the current Congress, the number was about 40.
"It really is bizarre, but because of the use of the filibuster, it is the majority that puts forward votes that they know they will lose," Mann said. But he said that at least Reid's effort demonstrates that the Senate's rules need to be changed: "In my view, they do it too little."