“At some point the majority leader will try to move to proceed to the bill,” Mr. McConnell said. “I think it’s appropriate to make the point, at the outset, that a vote on cloture, on the motion to proceed to this bill, will be treated as a vote on the merits of the bill.”I think that's a mistake by McConnell.
Of course, it's totally reasonable for Republicans to treat votes on cloture as if they were votes on substance; that's not the mistake here.
The mistake is forcing a showdown on the motion to proceed.
On normal bills, no one is paying much attention, so there's not very much pressure, and it's not particularly important to construct a narrative that makes sense. But the health care bill, of course, is going to have lots of people paying attention. And McConnell needs Democrats, and those Democrats are going to have to explain why they think it's OK to vote to keep the Senate from even considering the bill. I think -- and Joe Lieberman has already signaled -- that Democrats won't do that.
Now, filibustering to keep the bill from coming to a final vote is another story. Lieberman (and Nelson, and Lincoln, and Bayh) could much more plausibly, at that point, argue that it's important for the Senate to take it's time, to consider just a few more amendments (and there are always a few more amendments available to offer). In other words, they never have to explicitly come out and say that they want debate to continue forever; they just want it to continue for now. That's not going to satisfy liberals, of course, but it is a plausibly reasonable position.
However, if Republicans force these Senators to vote for cloture on the motion to proceed, and let them know that they will be permanently stamped as in favor of a government takeover of health care (and death panels, and who knows what all) on the basis of that vote, then the incentive to defy their party on the final procedural vote seems to me to be dramatically reduced. After all, if you've already earned the maximum GOP scorn, why turn around and earn the hatred of the Democrats, too?
Of course, it's possible that McConnell knows he has the votes to prevent the bill from reaching the floor, but I haven't seen anything in the reporting to convince me that he's right about that, and as I said, I think opposing cloture at that point is the hardest vote for Democrats to justify. If he isn't right -- if Democrats are likely to stick together to get the bill to the floor, then I don't see what Republicans can possibly gain from forcing a vote on a motion to proceed. They're far better off letting the bill reach the floor by unanimous consent, and then start throwing amendments at it.