Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) last night prevented his fellow Democrats from finally passing legislation to extend needed unemployment insurance benefits to out of work Americans. It was the third time the legislation, which has been repeatedly pared down and reshaped in the hunt for votes, has failed to overcome a filibuster. But it was the first time that success or failure rested on a single deciding vote. And because Nelson, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, joined Republicans and blocked the bill, it will likely not pass until mid-July, after the Senate returns from Independence Day recess. By then Robert Byrd’s replacement will be seated, and Dems will have the votes they need to pass their jobs bill.
Here’s what happened.
The Senate was by all accounts done for the day, and any further attempts to extend unemployment insurance would have to wait another day. But at about 8 pm, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to give it one more shot and called the vote, which had to be held open to allow Senators caught unaware to reach the chamber. When it was all said and done, the final vote was 58-38 with three Republicans not voting.
Of course, it requires 60 votes to break a filibuster, meaning Democrats were two votes shy. So why does this fall on Ben Nelson? When a cloture vote fails, the Majority Leader often switches his vote from yes to no. But he’s not joining the filibuster. It’s a parliamentary maneuver that allows him to bring the issue back to the floor easily at a later time, without having to go through the longer process of filing for cloture again.
That’s what happened last night. With the death of Robert Byrd, Democrats have 58 voting members. Last night, they were joined by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME). That would have brought them to 60, breaking the filibuster…but Nelson said no. He’s opposed the legislation repeatedly on the grounds that it’s not completely paid for (though emergency extensions of unemployment benefits are often not paid for). He brought Democrats down to 59 votes — one short of the supermajority they needed — and because of that, Reid changed his vote, drawing the total down to 58.
A day earlier, Nelson released a long statement explaining his repeated opposition to the bill.
“The bill has been revised several times already and each time the deficit spending was less. Tough choices are possible and necessary to not add to the deficit,” Nelson said. “Some also say we need more emergency spending now to keep the recovery going. But in my view it could jeopardize the recovery and would add to our already enormous deficit, likely to be around $1.4 trillion for the second year in a row…. Congress should provide additional unemployment benefits but not as a bailout to the states that worsens the deficit and passes the bills onto our children.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.