60 Is Not Everything
Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jul 2, 2009
With the end of the Minnesota recount, Democratic Senator Al Franken gives Democrats the magical 60 seats needed to end Republican filibusters. Already, progressives are pushing Senate leaders to enact their agenda and Republicans are decrying the impending Armageddon. In reality though, Democrats gained responsibility for government and all its problems while our constitutional system will limit their exercising the power they wished for.
Now, Democrats own Washington, D.C. lock, stock and barrel. With control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, they can no longer blame George W. Bush for the country’s problems. They have the ability to end Republican obstruction so the future of health care, immigration, and education reform, card check, and the cap and trade bill as well as economic recovery, deficits, etc. is completely in the Democrats’ hands.
Yet, 60 votes do not guarantee Democratic success. The 60 votes include 58 Democrats and two independents (Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders) who consistently vote Democratic. Of those 58 Democrats, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts are in poor health and may not return to the Senate leaving Democrats with 58 seats.
Plus, our constitutional system requires officials to be responsive to their constituents. This produces moderates like Ben Nelson of Nebraska who will buck the party line and forces moderate liberals like Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to choose between party and state. It also produces progressives like Sanders and Tom Harkin of Iowa who oppose compromising with moderates because they believe political circumstances favor progressives.
Then there are two vulnerable Democratic Senators in conservative or centrist states up in 2010 (Michael Bennett in Colorado and Harry Reid in Nevada) who cannot antagonize constituents and get reelected. This is especially problematic for Senate Democratic Leader Reid who has approval ratings in the 30s. This produces a reliable 54-55 seat coalition led by a nervous Reid worried about his constituents’ views in Nevada.
And this does not take into account geographical interests. Midwest states rely heavily on coal for energy and possess large blue collar workforces who are most economically vulnerable and threatened by a cap and trade bill. Immigration, deficits, and the Democrat’s social agenda threatens Southern Democrats. Some environmental policies threaten Western Democrats.
Consequently, the most important benefit of 60 votes is leverage to make bills more liberal. Working from a fairly solid block of 50 liberals, Democrats do not need to compromise with moderates or Republicans as much to win votes. They can offer minor concessions to allow moderates to save face and still get most of what they want.
Realizing this, Obama and Congressional leaders are taking political advantage of the economic crisis to successfully move their agenda. So far, Democrats have shown remarkable unity. Thus, they passed cap and trade in the House and are making good progress on universal health care in both chambers. If they pass these historic and far-reaching bills, the country’s values will change and Democrats are likely to dominate politics for a generation.
This political opportunity increases the chance that they will become more partisan, especially when bipartisan outreach has largely failed. However, a partisan strategy would result in Republicans waging all out war bringing the Senate to a standstill.
Democrats need to remember that the stimulus bill passed the Senate and cap and trade passed the House because of moderate Republicans. Moreover, a partisan strategy would burn bridges with Republicans like Iowa’s Charles Grassley and Utah’s Orrin Hatch who are working in good faith with Democrats on universal health care. This would make it more difficult to gain their support in the future. Finally, bipartisanship insures Republican support for programs even when Democrats lose power.
Sixty Senate seats is both an opportunity and a risk. Democratic success changes the economic and political environment. Failure perpetuates partisan dischord and provides Republicans an opportunity to regain power. The choice is up to Democrats. Beware what you wish for.