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Senate Auto Bailout Vote Was Not What It Seemed

14 Dec 2008
Posted by Pete Davis

The Senate auto bailout vote late last Thursday was not what it seemed.  At 10:42 p.m. on December 11, the Senate voted 52-35 against "invoking cloture" on the motion to proceed to H.R.7005.  Falling 8 votes short of the 60 votes needed to limit debate and move to consideration of the underlying $14 b. auto loan bailout seemed like a wide margin of defeat, particularly when four Democrats (Baucus, Lincoln, Reid, and Tester) voted against it, four Democrats didn't vote at all (Biden, Kennedy, Kerry, and Wyden), and 10 Republicans voted for it (Bond, Brownback, Collins, Dole, Domenici, Lugar, Snowe, Specter, Voinovitch, and Warner).  What was going on?!!!

First of all, everyone knew the talks among Senate Banking Chair Chris Dodd (D-CT), Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), and Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) had broken down over how quickly the United Auto Workers would have to reach wage and benefit parity with their competitors among foreign owned U.S. automakers in the South.  Corker insisted upon a "date certain" no later than the end of 2009, and the Democrats refused to agree to a "date certain," although reportedly they were willing to accept a date no earlier than 2011.  So they were only a year and a day apart, but it might as well have been an eon.

Second of all, although it wasn't public yet, the Republicans had been told by President Bush that if the bill failed to pass the Senate, he would step in with Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds to provide bridge loans until President Obama could settle the matter.  Either way, the auto companies were going to get their bridge loans.

When the outcome of a vote is predetermined, a "free vote" situation is created, where members vote however they want it to appear -- not how they would have voted if it were for real.  About half of the 10 Republicans would have voted for cloture would have done so if the vote were for real, but about half wouldn't have.  The later half wanted to demonstrate that Republicans had not blocked the vote.  They had delivered the 10 votes needed to reach 60 if all 50 Democrats (including two independents, Lieberman and Sanders and with Mr. Obama's seat vacant) had voted in favor.

So why did four Democrats vote against the H.R.7005 and four Democrats not bother to vote at all?  They knew it was going to fail as well, and all 8 would almost certainly have voted for cloture if they thought they had a chance to pass it.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) voted against cloture simply as a procedural matter, so if by some slim chance the Senate had a change of heart later on, he could have moved to reconsider the vote, which can only be moved by someone who voted with the prevailing side.  Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus (D-MT) voted against it because he we rightfully opposed to reopening a massive "sale in/lease out (SILO)" tax loophole under Section 382 of the Internal Revenue Code that financed many mass transit agencies, including Washington, D.C.'s Metro.  Senator Lincoln (D-AR) sits on Finance Committee and may have felt as Baucus did, and Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) opposed the bailout period.  The other four Democrats, who didn't vote, knew their votes weren't going to make any difference, and they had more important things to do.  Eight Republicans didn't vote as well, either because they had more important things to do, or because they didn't want to be recorded on a sensitive vote that could hurt them in the next election.

At 5:23 p.m. last Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) took to the floor to say that the auto loan negotiations were very close to completion and that if they succeeded, the auto loan bill would pass the Senate "by an overwhelming margin."  He also noted that the talks could still fail.

No one will ever know how the true vote would have turned out if this vote had "been for real."  However, it is clear to me that it would have been a lot closer to the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture if the vote "had been for real."

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