If these Democratic senators opposed the bill, why did they vote Yes on the enabling cloture vote? If they supported the bill, why did they vote No when the bill came to the floor?
The Divided Caucus Meeting — Why Some Senators Voted Both Ways On CR-Omnibus
January 5, 2015

A version of this piece first appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here. Image: "Don't sit on the fence."

I wrote earlier about the CR–Omnibus Spending bill that was recently approved in both the House and Senate, and about how three groups of Democratic senators voted:

  1. Six senators — like Warren, Sanders, Franken and Brown — opposed the bill during the cloture vote (the vote whether or not to bring it to the floor) and also opposed it after it came to the floor.
  2. Sixteen senators, many with "liberal" reputations — like Merkley, Cantwell, Wyden, Whitehouse — supported the bill during the cloture vote and opposed it only during the floor vote.
  3. All others — like Schumer, Bennet, Warner, and others — supported the bill all the way, by voting for cloture (to bring it to the floor) and also voting for the bill itself.

Keep in mind — no one watches or reports the cloture vote. Everyone watches and reports the floor vote. Only if the cloture vote fails — which kills the bill — does that vote make the news.

The cloture vote, the vote to bring the bill to the floor, passed 77-19 (required: 3/5 majority). After that, everyone in the Senate was certain the floor vote would pass, and as many as twenty-six senators could now vote No without affecting the passage of the bill. Twenty-one senators did switch sides, changing their votes from Yes on cloture to No on the bill. The floor vote passed 56-40 (required: simple majority).

What Was Wrong With the CR–Omnibus Spending Bill?

The CR–Omnibus Spending bill prevented a government shutdown, but it also included quite a number of abominations, like putting taxpayers back on the hook for bank losses due to "casino-like" derivatives trading. (See a full description of the abominations in this great piece by David Dayen for the Fiscal Times. He listed 10 abominations in his piece and said there were more.)

Most Democratic Senators opposed to the bill were opposed to all of its abominations, but they especially hated the Wall Street bailout provision, called the "Citigroup rider" because Citigroup basically wrote it, as well as a provision to increase big-donor campaign spending limits. (Why "big-donor"? Because only big donors could reach those limits.)

Why Did the In-Between Senators "Triangulate" Their Votes?

The first group of Democrats in the three-group list above opposed the bill, said so, and voted their opposition all the way. The third group of Democrats supported the bill (for various reasons; see below), said so, and voted their support all the way.

It's that middle group I've been examining. If they opposed the bill, why did they vote Yes on the enabling cloture vote? If they supported the bill (for various reasons; see below), why did they vote No on the bill itself when it came to the floor?

That middle group is confusing. They appear to be "fence-sitters." For reference, here's the list, with DC office phone numbers:

Democratic "Fence-Sitters" on the CR-Omnibus Bill


Blumenthal Richard CT D (202) 224-2823
Booker Cory NJ D (202) 224-3224
Boxer Barbara CA D (202) 224-3553
Cantwell Maria WA D (202) 224-3441
Gillibrand Kirsten NY D (202) 224-4451
Harkin Tom IA D (202) 224-3254
Hirono Mazie HI D (202) 224-6361
Klobuchar Amy MN D (202) 224-3244
Levin Carl MI D (202) 224-6221
Markey Ed MA D (202) 224-2742
Menendez Robert NJ D (202) 224-4744
Merkley Jeff OR D (202) 224-3753
Reed Jack RI D (202) 224-4642
Tester Jon MT D (202) 224-2644
Whitehouse Sheldon RI D (202) 224-2921
Wyden Ron OR D (202) 224-5244

These senators, all Democrats, voted Yes on cloture (helping the bill get to the floor), but No on the bill itself. Then many of them released letters to supporters saying how opposed to the bill they were. To begin to understand these voting patterns, we have to look at the bill in a larger context. Why would a Democrat support it? Why would a Democrat oppose it? It turns out there are several reasons for each position.

Why Would a Democrat Support This Bill?

There are a number of reasons for Democratic senators to support the bill. Some are venal and some are tactical.

For a venal example, consider a senator who is taking a lot of Wall Street money — Chuck Schumer, for instance, but also these senators, via Howie Klein (my emphasis and some reparagraphing):

It's worth noting that in the last cycle, [Cory] Booker was the #1 most favored candidate for Senate by the Financial Sector. They gave him $4,093,749. By way of comparison, their #2 most favored senator, Mitch McConnell, who guards their interests like no one else, and was in a fight for his life, was only given $3,639,493. Every single senator who was given over a million dollars by the financial sector in the 2014 cycle, voted to shut down debate and, in effect, give the banksters their deregulation.

And that includes the ones who voted "against" it in the final count like Ed Markey (D-$2,385,102), Tim Scott (R-$1,276,584), and Rob Portman (R-$1,157,479).

As for [Robert] Menendez, he wasn't up for reelection in 2014 but his friendship for the bankster community is storied and over the course of his political career the Financial Sector has given him $7,132,21[0], almost as much as the $7,386,070 they've given phony-liberal Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) who is always desperate to appear progressive while supporting Big Business and Wall Street-- as she did Saturday night, voting for cloture and against the final legislation.

Consider — if I read Klein correctly, Ed Markey (D-MA; "good progressive") took more than $2 million from the financial sector in the 2014 cycle. How is he not going to support this big wet gift back to them? Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY; "good progressive") has taken more than $7 million from the sector in her career. Yes, she's good on some issues. But how is she not going to vote Yes (when it counts) to this abysmal "Thank You" to Wall Street?

If you say No to Wall Street on a vote they really want, you say No to their money going forward. And for your betrayal, you may get a well-financed opponent.

But there were other reasons to vote Yes on the bill that aren't as venal. From reporting out of the contentious Democratic caucus meeting where the bill was discussed:

During a marathon, closed-door meeting in the Capitol basement, Democrats debated two key questions: whether a pair of giveaways for Wall Street [the "Citigroup rider"] and wealthy donors [raising the campaign spending limit] in a $1 trillion bill were cause for shutting down the government, and whether they could get a better deal from Republicans by rejecting this one.

So the other issues were:

  • Is this the best deal we can get?
  • Will Republicans pass something worse after the New Year?
  • Is it worth shutting down the government (and being seen to) over these "abominations"?

Notice also that party leaders were almost unanimous in support of the bill. For example:

For a while on Thursday, it looked like liberals would actually succeed in sinking the appropriations bill. Led by Pelosi and Warren, opponents had seized the momentum and forced Republicans to delay a vote for hours. Obama dispatched Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, to speak to Democrats, but he didn't change many minds. According to one person in the room, it was only when Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the minority whip and chief deputy (and occasional rival) to Pelosi, stood up at the end of the meeting to say he would support the bill that the tide turned.

Hoyer was not alone in supporting the bill. Almost every House leader, the White House and much of the Senate leadership, perhaps including Reid, who seems to be big on party unity, were in favor of passing the bill. So a fourth issue must be added:

  • Do we want to act in opposition to party leadership?

Some of these are tactical questions. "What's the best way to get the best deal?" is certainly a legitimate question, and it's not anti-progressive to ask it. From the meeting:

"It does not get better," Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia New Dem, one of that group's vice-chairs, who voted for the bill, said on Friday morning. "There were a number of us that respectfully had a different point of view that we didn’t have the kind of leverage that Elizabeth Warren was suggesting."

Members of the caucus who supported the bill were considering their contributors (perhaps), their position vis-à-vis the caucus (perhaps), and the tactics of the issue itself.

Why Would a Democrat Oppose This Bill?

As much as there were tactical reasons to support the bill, there were tactical reasons to oppose it. Not only did it include what I've been calling "abominations" — like the aforementioned "Citigroup rider" — but voting No offered the caucus an opportunity to re-define themselves as Democrats ("party of the people" was their pre-Clinton designation), especially in the wake of the 2014 election.

The caucus was thus divided on this bill, and it showed:

Tempers peaked after the administration formally endorsed the legislation Thursday afternoon, just as Democratic opposition was building. Taking to the House floor, Pelosi assailed Obama's support for the bill and said Democrats had been "blackmailed." ...

The bill's passage angered Pelosi's allies, who were disappointed that the party did not rally behind her. "It was a missed opportunity to reinforce the contrast between Republicans and Democrats," Representative Steve Israel, a member of the Democratic leadership, said by phone Friday morning.

Indeed, for Democratic critics of the proposal, the two offending provisions—a rolling back of regulations on the trading of derivatives by banks and a significant loosening of restrictions on political contributions by the wealthy—struck at the core of the populist, middle-class message the party needs to hold the White House and win back Congress in 2016 and beyond. "If you're not showing the public you're willing to fight on these issues," Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland asked, "what are you willing to fight for?"

And there's your other reason for voting No on the bill — the first being your actual principles:

"If you're not showing the public you're willing to fight on these issues," Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland asked, "what are you willing to fight for?"

Indeed. Elizabeth Warren and others were urging a No vote (1) on principle, and (2) to show voters what Democrats stood for. Their caucus opponents urged a Yes vote (1; unstated) because of their finance-industry contributors, if they have them; (2; unstated) because the leaders said so; and (3; stated) because this was "the best deal" possible.

These are pretty clear, opposing choices. A legitimate discussion, at least on the stated views, and a legitimate division.

So What Was The "Middle Group" of Senators Doing?

We can see why a Democrat might support the bill all the way, or oppose it all the way. That explains the votes of two of our three groups of senators. But what explains the middle group, those who voted both ways? I can't read minds and apply can-openers to hearts, so I don't know what they thought they were doing. But it's pretty obvious what it looks like they were doing — trying to have it both ways.

In other words, it looks like they were in favor of "taking the deal," for any of the reasons above. Did they sincerely think it was the best they could do? I'm sure they did, or thought they did. Thus the Yes vote on the little-reported cloture question, to help the bill get to the Senate floor, where they knew it would pass.

But if they actually supported the bill, however disgustedly, why vote against it on the failed second vote? In other words, are the 16 senators listed above sitting on the fence? Or are they doing something very clever — sending a message to two different groups, one message to people watching cloture, and another to people watching the bill?

Open Rebellion Means Siding Against Party Leaders

I don't believe the 16 "fence-sitters" listed above were undecided or confused at all. My speculation — they knew that party leaders wanted the bill to pass, and leaders were watching the cloture vote. A No on cloture was not just a vote against the bill, it was a vote against party leadership — Obama, Biden, Schumer, Reid perhaps, Hoyer, Clyburn, Crowley — almost all of whom supported the bill.

A No on cloture also meant siding with Elizabeth Warren against party leadership. If they vote against Warren on cloture, the leaders are pleased. If they vote with Warren on the bill, the people are pleased. Why not do both, especially with a bill you know will pass anyway?

Think about it. Why would Jeff Merkley — who probably does oppose much of what's in the bill, but appears to want it to pass — not vote No on cloture? He wouldn't affect the outcome either way. I can think of no other reason than to avoid ruffling the leaders, when he gets his preferred outcome whatever he does. Warren, she wants to ruffle the leaders, at least on this.

Thus the double message, as I see it — "I'm with you, boss" said the 16 on cloture, the vote the leaders were watching; "I'm with you, American people" on the bill, the vote the public was watching. Done and done.

Open Rebellion Among Democratic Senators

Which brings us back to the main point, made before the election and many times since. The reason Democrats lose to Republicans is because party leaders won't support progressives. Democratic insiders would rather lose to other insiders, even of the opposite party, than lose to an outsider who wants to overturn the insider game.

The challenge for progressives is not just to oppose money-bought insider policies. It's to break up the game. If money-bought Democrats would rather the House stay in Republican hands, for example, than to support viable progressive candidates, those Democrats are the enemy also.

I'll say this bluntly. These six senators were willing to oppose party leaders and visibly play "Warrenball," at least on this bill:

  • Elizabeth Warren
  • Sherrod Brown
  • Al Franken
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Claire McCaskill
  • Joe Manchin

The 16 "fence-sitters" listed above (with phone numbers) showed opposition to the bill, but also showed opposition to Warren-style defiance. Six insurgent senators (more or less) versus the rest of the caucus. Our job — decide whether we want this split in the caucus to widen or to heal. If we want it to widen, we need to add wedges of our own.

In other words, do we want Democratic office-holders to continue to compromise their values (and ours) in the name of party unity, or to use the next two years (during which they will lose every vote anyway) to clean out the neoliberal house and force other members to take sides. The 16 listed above are fence-sitters. But the fence they're on isn't this bill — it's whether to break with the party when the party is wrong on core principles.

If you believe we need to clean house and take out anti-progressive leaders, then you want the insurgent caucus (the "open rebellion") to grow. Which means you want to help what I called the "Merkley group" to battle beside Warren and not against her. Again, use the phone numbers above. You don't need permission to call them. You don't need permission to ask about their cloture vote. You don't need permission to say you're noticingall the votes that count, and to say it's time to choose sides — When it's the people versus the party, choose the  people.

Remember, we're not trying to punish these "fence-sitters." We're incentivizing them to join the "party of the people" when the lights are off as well.

Mes centimes,


Can you help us out?

For 18 years we have been exposing Washington lies and untangling media deceit, but now Facebook is drowning us in an ocean of right wing lies. Please give a one-time or recurring donation, or buy a year's subscription for an ad-free experience. Thank you.


We are currently migrating to Disqus

On May 14, 2022, we started migrating our comments from Insticator back to Disqus. During this transition period, some posts will have Insticator and some Disqus. For more information on the transition, as well as information regarding old C&L accounts, please see this post.

We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.