Not So Magic 60 in the Senate

Washington Matters

Not So Magic 60 in the Senate

The possibility of winding up with 60 seats in the Senate has Democrats all atwitter and Republicans aghast at the thought of a filibuster-proof majority. Everyone should relax a bit. Filibusters simply aren't that cut and dried and would be bound to bedevil Senate Democratic leaders even with 60 or 61 votes.

The 60-seat mark in the Senate is significant, but it's far from absolute. A party needs 51 votes (50 if you have the tie-breaking vote of a vice president ) to control the chamber and the all-important committees. It takes 60 to invoke cloture -- a procedure that ends a filibuster, or the threat of one -- and move on to an actual vote on a piece of legislation.

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But votes to end filibusters are like any other vote in the Senate, and it's not unusual for senators to cross the aisle. Democratic leaders could not count on automatically achieving 60 votes in every instance.

Besides, Democrats first have to deal with their Lieberman problem. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has been an independent since 2006, but he caucuses with Democrats. (If he didn't, the Senate would be tied 50-50 and control would shift to the Republicans because of VP Dick Cheney.) Lieberman endorsed Republican John McCain this year, and Democrats are so furious that they are likely to strip him of his chairmanship and bounce him from the party.

But even if Democrats managed to negate the Lieberman issue by picking up 10 seats instead of nine (which is extremely unlikely), their majority still wouldn't be filibuster-proof.

While partisanship is extraordinarily fierce these days, neither party is an ideological monolith. Republicans still have a handful of moderates and the ranks of conservative Democrats have been growing. In fact, one reason Democrats grabbed the majority two years ago and will expand it considerably this year is because the party has found candidates that better reflect the conservative and moderate temperaments of voters in the West and South.

It's not hard to see coalitions of conservatives from both parties forming in efforts to thwart some pieces of legislation. That's most likely on spending and budget issues, restrictions on guns and some social issues. What's even more likely, though, is that small groups of conservative Democrats, such as Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jim Webb of Virginia, will use the threat of joining Republicans in a filibuster vote as leverage to win concessions from from their leaders and make a given bill more palatable. Republican moderates (think Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, for instance) could be in the same position, promising to join Democrats on key votes if certain conditions are met.They would be most likely to abandon the GOP on issues such as the environment, spending on social programs and restrictions on civil liberties.
But frankly, I doubt Democrats will have to worry much about how to keep a 60-seat majority "filibuster proof." Getting there, even if you count Lieberman's seat, is a Herculean feat that requires not just winning every single race that appears in reach, but several real stretches. It's conceivable that Saxby Chambliss could get swept away if Barack Obama brings Democrats out in droves in Georgia. But that would be a gain of eight seats, meaning that Democrats would have to win at least one seat in a very Republican state that is certain to stay with the GOP in the presidential race, a very tall order. Democrats are pinning their hopes on upsetting a neophyte Republican senator in Mississippi who just barely won a special election a few months ago. Another possibility is minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who almost never finds himself in a competitive race but did this year. But it's hard for me to see Kentucky throwing him out if it sticks by John McCain. And unless Tuesday is a unexpected landslide nationwide, it will.

My guess is the Democrats will gain seven seats -- eight on a very good night for Obama.