I am writing this column in the middle of the most surreal Republican Convention of my lifetime, which follows on the heels of the historic Democratic lollapalooza Convention just a week ago. But nearly as interesting, though less widely acknowledged, is a political story that may turn out to be even more central to the theme of change which dominates both Presidential campaigns. I am referring to the intense battle being fought currently by Democrats to win both a filibuster-proof Senate majority and increase the Democratic majority in the House at the polls in November
To be sure, there are some great House and Senate races to consider and keep an eye on over the next two months. And, there are so many questions to consider. Will Republicans win back House seats they lost due to scandal (e.g., Mark Foley) in 2006? Will Obama be that much of a boost to House and Senate races for the Democrats? Can the Democrats reach the magic number of 60 in the Senate?
Starting with the Senate, Democrats know this is a huge prize, and they are throwing nearly as much money and sweat into that effort as they are into electing Mr. Obama. What isn’t clear is whether voters are as aware of the stakes. An unstoppable Democratic Senate has the potential to alter the balance of power in Washington in ways not seen for many moons.
For background, here are the raw numbers: Republicans must defend 23 seats, compared to only 12 for the Democrats. Of those GOP slots, 10 are at potential risk: Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Oregon, Colorado, Alaska, Mississippi, Maine and North Carolina. The Democrats claim only one vulnerable senator this year, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu who has been a close friend to psychology during her tenure in Washington. Depending on how big a day the party has in November, it is at least conceivable that Democrats could get the nine seats they need to hit the magic 60 mark.
Of note, if this situation came to pass, it would not be the first time. At least twice before, the Senate has been in this filibuster-free condition. Both times they went on a spending spree. FDR passed his New Deal and Lyndon Johnson passed his Great Society with filibuster-proof majorities.
Today, however, partisanship in Congress is not only more pronounced, but it is also much more cohesive than in days of old. According to Congressional Quarterly, in 1994 Senate Democrats voted with their party 84% of the time. By 1998, that number was 86%. CQ’s most recent analysis of votes during the George W. Bush presidency, showed Democratic senators remained united 91% of the time. Should he get his 60 seats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (an AAP Black Tie Honoree) will be arguably more influential than the president.
60 votes still aren’t enough to override a presidential veto. But a filibusterproof majority would put Mr. Reid in almost complete control of the agenda. That holds equally true whether we have a President McCain or a President Obama.
Interestingly both Obama and McCain are touting their bipartisan bona fides in selling their candidacies to voters. In reality, however, if a filibuster-proof senate becomes a reality, presidential standing will be of lesser concern. A Democratic Senate with 60 votes will rule the day and the very senior committee chairmen in the Senate, fairly full of themselves now, will undoubtedly pounce on the new more expansive opportunity to exert their power with or without the President’s consent. Remember, power is the currency that matters most in Washington. Calling the shots and demonstrating who is in charge is the sine qua non in the power game.
Keep in mind also that Mr. Reid won’t necessarily need 60 Democratic votes to reign supreme in Washington. There is still a small contingent of moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins who don’t always vote party line. Mr. Reid could fend off a filibuster even if the Ds win only 57 or 58 seats.
You may have noticed that much legislation is in a holding pattern of late. Congressional Democrats are not moving much in the way of spending bills, energy bills, or anything at all really. They are waiting for next year when they think the prospect for producing bullet proof majorities in both houses is quite favorable.
With a filibuster-proof majority, for example, Democrats could reshape the judiciary under a President Obama, or refuse to confirm any Antonin Scalia-type appointments made by a President McCain.