Seats don't vote, senators do



Now that Republican Saxby Chambliss has held onto his Senate job, by handily winning the runoff election in Georgia last night, the Democratic dream of capturing 60 seats - of achieving a "filibuster-proof majority" - has finally come to an end. But the thing is, all this suspense about 60 seats has always been a tad contrived.

And that's the big reason why the Georgia Senate runoff, and the (still-pending) Minnesota Senate recount, have barely been mentioned in this space.

The journalistic hook was that Democratic victories in both races would have pushed the Senate Democrats to 60 seats - a purported magic number, akin to Babe Ruth's once-fabled 60 homers. The argument was that if the Democrats got to 60 (as opposed to their current 58), they'd have enough votes, under Senate rules, to cut off Republican delaying tactics (notably, the filibuster) and move forward crucial legislation on health care, energy, and the rest of the lengthy laundry list.

But the magic of 60 has been consistently oversold - or, in the words of congressional expert Alan Ehrenhalt, editor of Governing magazine, all the talk about 60 seats "was always an overrated issue."

Even if the Senate Democrats had wound up with 60 seats, that wouldn't have guaranteed 60 votes to stymie all delaying tactics all the time. In reality, that's not how the place works these days. Senators are independent operators who typically resist party-line discipline. Their alliances shift depending on the issues that come before them. They tend to build bipartisan coalitions on an ad hoc basis.

Nevertheless, this coalition-building will give the Democrats many opportunities to get 60 votes. On some key issues that enjoy broad public support, for instance, liberal Democratic senators might find common cause with (the dwindling roster of) moderate Republicans. Assuming that defections among conservative Senate Democrats are kept to a minimum, some of those scenarios could translate into 60 votes, thereby allowing the Democrats to move forward with the agenda.

And that's how the Obama administration hopes to operate, anyway - by cultivating the votes from cooperative Republicans on an ad hoc basis. It's a political necessity, because the big-ticket measures - notably, on health care and energy - will require broad bipartisan support in the chamber before they can be effectively sold to the general public. (Back in 1977, the new Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, had a filibuster-proof 61-seat Democratic Senate...yet he got nothing accomplished, in part because he never effectively built coalitions with moderate Republicans, who were more numerous than they are now.)

Some of the key Republicans to watch in 2009: Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, George Voinovich of Ohio, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and (assuming he survives the current recount) Norm Coleman of Minnesota. And perhaps Florida's Mel Martinez, now that he has declared himself a lame duck and therefore can do what he likes. With the exception of Lamar Alexander, the rest of those senators hail from states that voted last month for Barack Obama.

Indeed, Obama's public standing will be crucial. If he can sustain popularity - notably, by governing from the center - these Republican moderates will have greater motivation to cross the aisle and help the Democrats get their 60 votes. As Ehrenhalt wrote last month, "the route to breaking filibusters runs through the court of public opinion more than it does the Senate chamber."

We've recently seen this behavior in action. Last year, 17 Senate Republicans read the political tea leaves and concluded that there was strong public support for an expansion of children's health insurance, and hence it would be stupid for them to block the Democratic bill. So these 17 Republicans sided with the Senate Democrats and broke the 60-vote barrier, snuffing the GOP delaying tactics. Then 18 Republicans joined the Democrats to pass the bill. (Naturally, President Bush vetoed the bill, but he'll be gone soon.) The point is, there are a number of ways that Democrats can reach 60 without occupying 60 seats. As the saying goes: Seats don't vote, senators do.

And, lest we forget, some crucial Senate matters don't require 60 votes at all. I won't get into the weeds trying to explain the "budget reconciliation" process (even to myself); suffice it to say that, under Senate rules crafted for the purpose of eluding the filibuster logjam, key economic measures can be passed with just 51 votes. Earlier in this decade, Senate Republicans used that process to pass Bush's tax cuts; and back in 1993, when the Democrats had 57 seats, they managed to pass President Clinton's economic package with just 51 votes...only because Vice President Gore cast the tie-breaker.

So the bottom line is, we can all continue to keep tabs on Al Franken's last-ditch bid to scour the rejected absentee ballots in the hopes of toppling Norm Coleman in Minnesota, but the future direction of the Senate, much less the fate of the republic, will not hang in the balance. Nor would that be the case even if Saxby Chambliss had been defeated in Georgia.


Speaking of Senator Mel Martinez, the Florida Republican's decision not to seek re-election in 2010 inspires this noteworthy factoid:

At present, the roster of House and Senate Republicans - 251 people - boasts four Hispanics and zero blacks. Which means that, in terms of its congressional delegation, the GOP is now 98.4 percent Caucasion. And with Martinez heading home, that roster may well be reduced to three Hispanics and zero blacks.

Is it unfair to suggest that the GOP should be renamed the White People's Party?

Or how about this suggestion: "The 'old white-guy' party."

That comes straight from Jeb Bush, the ex-Florida governor who is weighing a '10 bid for the Martinez seat. As he just told the conservative Newsmax website, "We can’t ignore large segments of our population and expect to win. We can’t be the ‘old white-guy’ party. It’s just not going to work, the demographics go against us in that regard."

Sounds right to me.