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60 Is Not a Magic Number for Democrats

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/12/chambliss.jpgSen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) dashed Democratic hopes for a filibuster-proof majority.

With the reelection victory of Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss in a special election last week, hopes that Democrats would command a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the upper chamber next year were dashed.

The number 60 has attracted enormous attention because it represents the votes required to defeat a filibuster in the Senate — the dreaded tactic that allows opponents of a bill to kill it by debating it ad infinitum. If they had secured 60 seats Nov. 4, Democrats could have prevented Republican filibusters and had their way legislatively.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

But many experts on Congress have a message for Democratic leaders: The failure to get 60 members probably won’t matter.

“[It's] insignificant,” said Michael L. Mezey, political science professor at DePaul University. “There are very few straight party-line votes on cloture, on cutting off debate … This whole 60-Democrat argument has been really overblown.”

GOP leaders have used the filibuster with great success since 2006, when Democrats won a slim 51-49 advantage (including two independents who caucus with the Democrats) in the Senate. House Democrats passed a long list of party priorities — including slashing carbon emissions and protecting journalists’ rights — only to see the legislation filibustered to death by Republican senators.

The goal of picking up nine additional Senate seats in the November elections was a rallying cry for Democratic supporters eager to end what they saw as two years of GOP obstructionism. Chambliss’ win in Georgia means that Democrats, at best, could muster 59 votes next year. The Senate contest in Minnesota remains too close to call.

No president has enjoyed a filibuster-proof Senate majority since Jimmy Carter.

Many of the experts contend that the Democrats’ belief that securing 60 seats would have been the key to legislative success ignores the regional and ideological nuances that influence voting patterns on both sides of the aisle. So much media attention has been focused on the entrenched partisanship on Capitol Hill that it has been easy to forget the handful of moderates who frequently cross party lines on a wide range of controversial issues and determine legislative outcomes.

Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Republicans from Maine, have a long history of bucking their party to support such Democratic causes as expanding health coverage and protecting the environment. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter is another moderate Republican who, in avidly supporting government-funded stem cell research, has defied the Bush administration. Specter has also voted with Democrats on bills battling pay discrimination and strengthening workers’ rights.

There are others. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has backed Democratic bills to reform immigration policy. More famously, he was also the chief sponsor of a successful effort — wildly unpopular among Republicans — to limit the influence of campaign contributions in elections.

If these and other GOP moderates support him, President-elect Barack Obama could build early political momentum next year by putting together a string of big legislative victories.

Obama says he plans first to tackle an enormous economic stimulus package that would pump hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure projects and social programs. House Democrats passed a similar, though much smaller stimulus bill in September. It was killed in the Senate by a Republican filibuster, but Snowe, Collins and Specter all voted for it, as did moderate Minnesota GOP Sen. Norm Coleman, who might be back next year as well.

Even with 60 seats in the Senate, Democrats would not be assured of victories on everything. Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent who tends to vote Democratic but became a pariah in the eyes of Democrats after endorsing McCain for president this year, has been a loud supporter of the Iraq war, voting consistently with Republicans against Democratic efforts to withdraw troops.

And Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a hawkish Democrat, has alienated many liberals with her votes on the war. Her push to expand offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico angered environmentalists.

The Progressive Patriots, a liberal group that rates lawmakers’ voting records, grades Landrieu a 19 — meaning she’s voted in support of progressive bills just 19 percent of the time.

This kind of cross-party voting undercuts the significance of a 60-seat majority for either party.

“On most issues, [Democrats] would have had to get some Republicans anyway,” Mezey said.

The current economic turmoil might help the party overcome its failure to secure 60 upper-chamber seats. Former GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) said the deepening recession could force Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other GOP leaders on Capitol Hill to abandon their filibuster strategy for fear of alienating a public already angry at years of partisan bickering.

“The party’s discipline has been so strong, but with the country in such bad shape, I’m not sure that discipline can remain,” said Chafee, a visiting scholar at Brown University. “[Republicans] can’t keep losing seats. And if you look at 2010, I don’t see any vulnerable Democrats. They [Republican leaders] will probably have to change their behavior.”

One Republican who might become receptive to the Democratic appeals is Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, who faces reelection in 2010. With Ohio suffering disproportionately from the economic downturn, Voinovich has been one of the few GOP senators to jump on board the Democrats’ plans to bail out Detroit’s sputtering auto industry — a show of support that will likely continue if the economy continues to tank.

“Voinovich will be under a lot of pressure not to obstruct things,” Mezey said.

There are still weeks to go before Democrats can begin to enjoy their newly expanded Senate majority. As party leaders prepare this week to push through a bailout package for Detroit, some Republican opponents are already vowing to filibuster it.

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