Did Democrats make health care harder than necessary?

In the 1960s, the Senate required 67 votes to break a filibuster, not today's 60. Yet, the more emotional Civil Rights Act carried passed; the White House took a stronger hand in drafting it and worked with Republicans from the start.
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President Lyndon B. Johnson won a tougher filibuster fight than Democrats face today.

In the 1960s, the Senate required 67 votes to break a filibuster, not today's 60. Yet, the more emotional Civil Rights Act carried passed; the White House took a stronger hand in drafting it and worked with Republicans from the start.

I belong to a loosely organized group of Kennedy/Johnson-era alumni who keep in e-mail touch on current issues. We all are of the same generation. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves in agreement on many things.

In 2010 we all favor some form of health care reform, although differing on details. We all voted in 2008 for President Obama. Yet, today, we all are frustrated and mystified to varying degrees by the means in which the legislation was developed and the tactics being used to move it forward. (There is a strong consensus around the premise that Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid is a destructive bumbler).

It would have been inconceivable, in the early 1960s, that legislation of this magnitude would have been attempted on a one-party basis. It also would have been inconceivable, we all agree, that Democrats' congressional leaders would have adopted the strategy they have to overcome the threat of a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

During my service with Senator and later Vice President Hubert Humphrey, his legislative assistant was John Stewart, who, among other things, helped guide the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act to passage. Stewart, in our committee of correspondence, reminds how difficult that legislation's passage was compared to the health bill's passage today.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed before the huge Lyndon Baines Johnson-Democratic victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater and Republicans in November of that year. It dealt with a far more emotional and polarizing issue than, for instance, Medicare and Medicaid, which would be passed in 1965. Its advocates had fought an uphill battle for 20 years for its core objective: an end to discriminatory treatment, for or against, of any American on the basis of race, gender, religion, or ethnicity.

Before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, supporters had to fight their way through an exhausting opposition filibuster. At that time, it took not 60 but 67 votes to break a filibuster and force a Senate floor vote. But they got it done. And the legislation passed with bipartisan support.

To begin with, LBJ and the bill's advocates carefully drafted it. They did not farm it out to Democratic congressional committee chairs, as President Obama has done with health legislation, to frame as they pleased. A broad coalition of organizations was recruited to support it. It was unthinkable that such legislation would have one-party sponsorship. Several Republicans signed on at the outset — although not Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. California Republican Sen. Tom Kuchel served as point man for the bill in his own party.

Southern Democrats mounted a 24/7 filibuster against the bill. They were prepared to tie up the Senate for weeks, if necessary, and took turns reading long statements into the record to delay and, they hoped, eventually kill the bill. The bill's advocates, led by Humphrey, made sure they had representatives present at all times during the filibuster so that the bill's opponents could not procedurally kill it. Senate Democratic leaders — unlike Reid today — called for no "test votes," Stewart points out. They wanted no vote taken until they were sure it would result in passage of final legislation. Test votes before that time would only demonstrate their weakness.

Bit by bit, the filibusterers were worn down. In the meantime, Humphrey and his allies were mounting one-on-one campaigns among Republican Senators to get to the 67 necessary votes. The breakthrough came when Dirksen, finally, agreed to throw his weight behind the bill. Johnson and Humphrey gave him fulsome public praise, painting him as a principled statesman who had been an equal partner in the quest for justice. (Dirksen, in fact, was an old-style, spoils-system pol known for extracting expensive favors from lobbyists).

If Democrats are united behind a bill, Stewart suggests, why do they not let Republicans have their filibuster and, then, meet it as the Civil Rights Act's sponsors did in 1964? Why be intimidated by even the possiblity of a filibuster?

I part somewhat from Stewart on this point. The Civil Rights Act had a moral clarity about it, which, in the end, could generate consensus support in the Senate. The current health care legislation, by contrast, is (correctly) seen by many Democrats — not to mention Republicans — as a far from perfect product weighted with some questionable policy and political baggage.

I do regret that the legislation was not undertaken, at the beginning, with greater White House involvement and without at least a few important Republican co-sponsors. If the four "concessions" offered to Republicans by Obama after the recent White House Health Summit had been offered in broader and more serious form at the beginning of the process, rather than at the end, the legislation's chances would be stronger today. But that matters little now. We have what we have.

At this moment I have no idea whether the health care legislation will succeed or fail. Too many variables surround it. Who knows what tactical missteps, by its sponsors or its opponents, lie ahead in the next month?

Win or lose, I am hoping that Obama and congressional Democrats do a postmortem and at least consider the strategies undertaken to pass historic 1960s legislation when it took 67 votes to break a filibuster.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.