Republicans pretend that they are powerless to do more about the great ship Obamacare than to change the fuel on which it runs and rearrange its deck chairs — never mind to sink it. Because they lack 60 votes to stop “unlimited debate,” they claim to be unable to vote even on whether to allow health insurance to be sold across state lines. They pretend to believe that fidelity to unlimited debate in the Senate trumps the importance of our health care system. But the reason why they prop up Obamacare rather than tearing it down is that they are even more beholden to the insurance companies and hospital chains than the Democrats who passed it in the first place.
Neither the filibuster nor the requirement of 60 votes to “cloture” it prevents voting and passing anything that a majority wishes to pass. Moreover, Senate rules can be made or changed by simple majorities. In practical terms, even without “cloture,” a minority’s protracted talk cannot stop a determined majority from voting. Potential filibusters learned long ago that talking nonsense to hold the floor day and night for weeks on end breaks them physically and discredits them politically. But the main reason why no one has tried a real filibuster for more than a half century is that, in 1970, the Senate adopted a “two track” procedure, by which, once a bill fails to gain enough votes to impose cloture (since 1975 that number has been 60), the Senate simply goes on to other business. This has resulted in countless bills having been effectively filibustered to death without a word having being spoken, without anyone having incurred any effort or risk. This, the avoidance of votes on risky, controversial matters — not any commitment to extended debate — is what senators of both parties find so attractive about the modern “virtual filibuster.”
If Republicans were serious about voting on any provision regarding health care, or anything else, they would not have to bother eliminating the filibuster. It would be enough to dare opponents actually to wage real ones — complete with minority senators babbling and majority senators sleeping on cots ready to answer quorum calls.
Real filibusters advertise the minority’s fatal political liability: refusal to confront the questions at hand. Because holding the floor to the exclusion of the majority makes it impossible to confute the majority, “extended debate” refutes no one and persuades no one. As the minority filibusters with scattershot or nonsense, the majority can repeat demands for roll-call votes to decide on matters at hand.
Today however, Republicans are even more unwilling than Democrats to take responsibility for basic choices. The Democrats’ Obamacare made health insurance companies into public utilities. This is what the companies wanted. Republicans had joined them in working out similar schemes (vide the Heritage Foundation plan and RomneyCare in Massachusetts) and resented being left out of the action. But whereas Republicans regarded the companies as permanent stewards of Health-Care-As-Public-Utility, Democrats viewed them as temporary administrators of rules designed to evolve into a “single payer” system of socialist medicine.
As Obamacare brought grief, Republicans fed on public hate for it for four election cycles. Today, they seem stuck with their original commitment to the health of the health insurance industry — as if maintaining the companies as public utilities and passing taxpayer money through them to lower patient out-of-pocket costs were a step toward freedom rather than another step toward socialism. The polls show that fewer that one in five voters approve of the Republican plans. That is why open debate on what to do about health care is the last thing on earth Republicans want.
Blaming “Senate rules” diverts attention from the basic choice that most Republicans made long ago to service the very groups that supported Obamacare: insurance companies and hospital administrators anxious for predictable streams of income. That is why, rhetoric about competition and freedom notwithstanding, Republican majorities in 2017-18 are no more disposed than were Republican majorities in 2005-07 to allow Americans to purchase any plan offered by any company certified in any state. Doing that today would cut virtually all of Obamacare’s Gordian knots. But each and every one of those complex rules means money for corporate constituents. Competition is what they don’t want.
The Republican Party bets that pretense of commitment to Senate rules will cover the reality of broken promises.