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Clear majorities signal lasting change

Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina demonstrates his

Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina demonstrates his oratory after his record-long filibuster sought to defeat a civil rights bill in August 1957. When he was done, the Senate passed the bill by a wide margin. Credit: AP

Of all the things President Donald Trump blusters about in his Twitter explosions, the demand that “Senate Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW” (his 6:56 a.m. April 1 wording) bugs me the least.

What Trump asks, loudly and often, is for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to change rules so the Senate can pass any legislation by a simple majority of 51 votes. It takes 60 votes to approve anything in the Senate other than presidential nominees and bills that (lawmakers can magically pretend) will reduce the deficit.

It seems fair that the party that wins the majority can pass bills. That has sort of been the case in the Senate for much of our nation’s history.

You don’t technically need 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate, you just, since 1975, need 60 in agreement to close debate and hold a vote. Prior to that it took a two-thirds vote.

In the past, the endless speeches or filibusters needed to stop voting demanded actual talking. So once the filibusterer got tired of reading phone books and recipes for hours, a simple majority could agree to take a vote. After the longest filibuster in history, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 24-hour, 18-minute stemwinder against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Senate passed the bill 72-18.

So the plan for this column was to make Trump’s point by highlighting all the contentious landmark legislation that barely passed the Senate, then shaped the nation.

But there don’t seem to be any. To last long enough to really shape the nation, legislation must have overwhelming support. Otherwise, it quickly gets reversed when the Senate changes hands.

Every Affordable Care Act argument seems to eventually lead to an explanation of how all landmark social safety-net programs had huge conservative opposition when introduced. But that’s not quite so.

Social Security sailed through the Senate, 77-6, in 1935. And the enabling legislation for Medicare and Medicaid passed in the Senate, 70-24, in 1965.

OK, so those are the safety-net programs, but what about other supposedly controversial landmark legislation?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Senate, 73-27. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, 77-19. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 passed, 71-20.

What about tax laws?

The Ronald Reagan tax cuts of 1981, lowering the top federal income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent, passed, 67-8, in the Senate. His second cut of top rates, from 50 percent to 38.5 percent, passed, 74-23, and top rates have never risen much above that since. Broad support equaled lasting change.

But other tax changes passed with less support — like President Bill Clinton’s 1993 hikes that Vice President Al Gore had to push over the top with a 51-50 vote — don’t last. As soon as George W. Bush replaced Clinton, he replaced his tax rates, too, with a bill that passed, 58-33. Then President Barack Obama changed that by a slim margin. Then Trump changed that by a slim margin.

Major changes passed without broad acceptance rarely last. The Affordable Care Act itself, which passed, 60-39, has been under attack since passage and is being dismantled. Trump’s tax plan and budget blueprint won’t survive a Democratic White House and Congress, when they come.

And the other party’s day always comes in the United States, sooner or later.

Regardless of voting rules, anybody who wants to make a real and lasting difference in this nation has to find answers that can attract a broad coalition of support.

Laws passed by slim margins might just as well be written in the sand, waiting for the tide to shift.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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