Senate runoff in Georgia: Over-hyped, and here’s why

Sen. Saxby Chambliss reacts after winning a run-off vote at his election night party Tuesday in Atlanta with grandson John Baker at his side.
REUTERS/Tami Chappell
Sen. Saxby Chambliss reacts after winning a run-off vote at his election night party Tuesday in Atlanta with grandson John Baker at his side.

How big a deal is it that the Democrats won’t have a 60-vote majority?

As you’ve probably heard by now, incumbent Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss won the runoff in Georgia yesterday, and by a solid double-digit margin (it stood at 58-42 percent with 96 percent of precincts tallied last night).

And, as almost every story on the topic noted, this ended the possibility that the Democrats would assemble a filibuster-proof 60-40 Senate majority no matter how the still-recounting Minnesota Senate race comes out.  (The current tally, counting the two independents who caucus as Dems and the two vacancies in Illinois and Delaware that will be filled by Dems, stands at 58 Democrats, 41 Republicans and Minnesota still to come.)

How big a deal is it that the Repubs have locked up Senator #41? Every vote matters, and the 41st vote matters a bit extra because of the filibuster, but the importance of one party controlling 60 votes has been hyped a bit. Here’s why:

Even in the recent hyperpartisanized times, most votes are not pure party line affairs. There are moderate blue-state Republicans (the list starts with Olympia Snowe of Maine, Susan Collins, also of Maine, and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter on many issues) and maverick Republicans (John McCain on issues of torture, campaign finance, or immigration, for example) who break ranks on many issues and will almost certainly provide the missing votes for cloture on some issues. Norm Coleman, if he survives the recount, will also be on the list of Republicans senators most likely to break ranks with his caucus, on particular issues.

Likewise, there are moderate red-state Democrats (Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln, both of Arkansas, come to mind, and North Dakotans Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan on issues of fiscal conservatism) who break ranks and oppose the majority of Democrats on particular issues.

“The thing to bear in mind is that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, but that means 60 votes for a specific piece of legislation, not 60 votes from one party,” said U of M political scientist Kathryn Pearson, a Congress expert. And the same is true in reverse. It takes 40 votes to sustain a filibuster.

Consider, for example, the hot-button issue of abortion. Snowe, Collins and Specter are all pro-choice Republicans. Harry Reid, the leader of Senate Democrats, is pro-life, as is Dem. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and they consistently vote in favor of additional abortion restrictions. It’s hard to imagine Reid joining a Republican filibuster, but it illustrates the danger of handicapping votes on a strictly partisan axis.

No Senate help needed
It’s also worth mentioning that a great many things that Barack Obama promised to do during his campaign can be done without help from the filibuster-prone Senate. As commander-in-chief, Obama can order troop withdrawals from Iraq without the Senate’s concurrence. Even if all 41 Republicans wanted to stop him, there would be nothing for them to filibuster.

Likewise, the tax cuts for the highest-income Americans — which most Republicans support and which Obama has promised to end — are already scheduled to expire in 2010. Obama has recently suggested that instead of repealing them, he may just wait for them to expire. Again, there would be nothing to filibuster. Of course, the Bush tax cuts for the rest of the taxpaying population are also set to expire. It will take a new law to reinstate them. But it seems unlikely that Republicans will want to filibuster that idea, or try to hold tax relief for most Americans hostage to tax cuts for the rich.

Not all bills are even subject to filibusters, Pearson also noted. The so-called reconciliation process was establish to create omnibus budget bills and help the Congressional taxing and spending process live within overall budget targets. By rule, reconciliation bills require only 51 votes to pass in the Senate, with no filibuster allowed.

Senators and presidents have become adept at getting what they want through the process in a reconciliation bill, which removes the filibuster threat. One of the most famous instances was Bill Clinton’s giant and highly controversial Omnibus Budget and Reconciliation Act of 1993, which contained the essence of Clinton’s taxing and spending plan (including a hike in the top tax bracket). Every Republican and a few conservative Democrats voted against it, but it passed on a 50-50 vote with Vice President Al Gore breaking the tie. An enormous number of policies slipped past the threat of what would otherwise have been an unbreakable filibuster that way.

Not to overstate the case, a filibuster-proof bloc of votes is a very handy thing to have in the Senate and the Democrats have failed to gain it. Republicans may decide to choose their issues, try to hold their ranks and attract a Democrat or two and stop some bills with filibusters. But they will have to first calculate the risks of appearing to favor stalemate over change, and chances are they will do so quite selectively.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by John E Iacono on 12/04/2008 - 02:04 pm.

    I believe it does matter, and to the benefit of the dems.

    If they HAD reached a 60 vote majority, and a filibuster loomed, the pressure on party members to vote for closure would have been unbearable.

    This would leave the dems in a “darned if you do, and darned if you don’t” position:

    If all 60 dems voted for closure, the party would “own” that bill and deserve every bit of opprobrium it might bring upon them.

    If all sixty did NOT vote for closure, the party would be blamed by supporters for the failure of the bill, since they presumable COULD have succeeded in bringing it forward.

    As things now appear, they can still blame the repubs for the failure of any bill, even if one vote did it.

  2. Submitted by Jesse Mortenson on 12/04/2008 - 06:38 pm.

    “As things now appear, they can still blame the repubs for the failure of any bill, even if one vote did it.”

    Ick. Constantly blaming the Republicans for everything is a hallmark of the endemic intellectual dishonesty of most liberals and a vast majority of party Democrats.

    That dynamic should tell you all you need to know about the opportunities for and limits on progressive change under an Obama administration.

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