“Mary Landrieu cast the deciding vote for Obamacare”
— voiceover of new Americans for Prosperity television ad

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers, is launching ads targeting Democrats for having voted for the Affordable Care Act. As the 2014 midterm elections loom, readers should get ready for a flood of ads showing President Obama repeating his Four-Pinocchio statement that Americans could keep their health plan if they liked it.

In this case, the Fact Checker was curious about the claim that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who likely will have a tight race, cast the “deciding vote” for the law. AFP is clearly trying to undercut the publicity surrounding her effort to pass a fix to the law that would allow individual policyholders to keep their plans.

The Facts

As always with bills in the Senate, there are critical procedure votes. Because of GOP objection, Democrats needed to win a supermajority of 60 votes in order to end debate and advance the Senate’s version of the legislation. (This is known as a cloture vote.) On Christmas Eve in 2009, the bill was passed in the Senate by a vote of 60 to 39.

Every Democrat in the Senate, including Landrieu, voted for that bill. But it was never officially reconciled with a House version because the Democrats lost the Massachusetts Senate seat in a special election. So an amendment of the Senate bill, crafted in the House, was finally passed on March 25 under a procedure that avoided the 60-vote requirement. That bill only needed 50 votes, and it passed 56 to 43, with Landrieu again voting with the majority.

It was certainly a messy ending but Obama’s health-care effort did not become law until the second bill was passed.

Levi Russell, an AFP spokesman, said the first vote backs up the ad’s statement. “In order to achieve cloture and pass President Obama’s health care law out of the Senate, the bill needed 60 votes,” he said. “The bill passed 60-39 out of the Senate. As Landrieu voted yes, her vote provided the critical margin for passage. If she had voted no, the bill would not have passed.”

Okay, but is that what really happened? The deciding vote is really that last vote reached—and that wasn’t Landrieu. Instead it was then Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska (who, by the way, voted against the second bill.)

The headline on The Washington Post article on Dec. 20, 2009 was “Deal on health bill is reached.” The article said: “Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) secured the pivotal 60th vote after acceding to the demands of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) for tighter restrictions on insurance coverage for abortions, along with increased federal aid for his home state and breaks for favored health-care interests.”

Indeed, Republicans immediately blasted Nelson for giving up his vote in exchange for the so-called “Cornhusker kickback” — full payment of expanded Medicaid coverage in the state. (The provision was dropped in the House revision that crafted the final version of the law.)

It is fair to say that Landrieu was one of the last holdouts. But she had announced her support four days before Nelson did.

Russell says this is a distinction without a difference. “The political reality is that each of the 60 Senators cast a ‘deciding vote,’” he said. “Landrieu’s vote held the power to either stop or save Obamacare.”

The Pinocchio Test

Given that Landrieu was one of the last holdouts on the law, a reasonable case could be made that her vote was important for the outcome, at least for the first vote. But calling her the “deciding vote” is going too far, as it invites a slippery slope in which attack ads could be made against every Senate Democrat, saying each cast the deciding vote.

In the case of the cloture vote, there was only one deciding vote — Ben Nelson. And he’s no longer in the Senate.

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