Senate Democrats don't need 60 seats to reach their magic number.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Oct. 20 2008 5:51 PM

Well North of 50

Senate Democrats don't need 60 seats to reach their magic number.

80_thehasbeen

A fortnight away from the electoral abyss, conservatives are down to their last flare: warning what Democrats might do if there aren't enough Republicans left in Washington to stop them. Friday's lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal, "A Liberal Supermajority," predicted "a period of unchecked left-wing ascendancy" not seen since 1933 or 1965. Conservative columnist Mona Charen recently suggested that with a 60-seat, filibuster-proof Senate, Democrats would destroy talk radio, bring on an economic depression, and usher in a "crypto-socialist" era.

For the next two weeks, panicky conservatives no doubt will invoke the number 60 with a dread once reserved for 666. Perhaps looking for a backup plan to keep us up late on election night, the press has chimed in as well, dubbing 60 the "magic number."

While Democrats have scores of reasons to smile these days, conservative Cassandras can calm down. The number 60 is neither magical nor menacing. Senate Democrats will be able to accomplish a great deal whether or not they win a filibuster-proof majority—and the toughest votes will still be tough even if Democrats win this election by a country mile.

Although not a magic number, 60 is certainly a novel one. Neither party has crossed the 60-seat threshold since the four years after Watergate, when the Senate was a vastly different place. Even in a banner year, Democrats would have to run the table to reach that mark this time around. Congressional Quarterly's latest tip sheetprojects a Democratic gain of five seats with another four tossup races and three Republicans leading but not out of the woods.

The real reason Senate Democrats are looking forward to this election isn't the remote shot at a supermajority. It's that however the tossups break, Democrats should wake up Nov. 5 with what really matters—a governing majority. When this tumultuous decade began, the Senate was split 50-50. Democrats gained control in 2001 and 2006 but both times by the barest of margins supplied by independents. From the standpoint of governing, the measure of this year's progress is not so much how close Senate Democrats get to 60 as how far they can get from 50.

In the unlikely event that Democrats reached 60, what would it mean? To be sure, a cloture-sized majority would make a difference on some party-line questions that tend to get bogged down for partisan rather than ideological reasons—for example, voting rights for D.C. Prolonged confirmation battles, already infrequent, would become even more so.

But reaching 60 seats won't suspend the laws of political gravity for Senate Democrats, nor will keeping Democrats in the 50s do much to ease Senate Republicans' pain. Here's why:

* On tough votes, the real magic number is 50. To get around the 60-vote hurdle, the Senate long ago established the budget reconciliation process, a fast-track procedure that cannot be filibustered and requires a simple majority. Not every matter is germane under reconciliation, but the questions with the greatest fiscal consequence are.

On the most contentious economic debates of the past two decades, the pass-fail line has been 50, not 60. In 1993, Vice President Al Gore cast the deciding vote to squeak Bill Clinton's pivotal economic package through the Senate, 51-50. Senate Republicans used reconciliation to pass the Bush tax cuts.

For an Obama administration, the real benefit of getting to 60 is that on tough economic votes, it would be that much easier to get to 50. Even with 57 Senate Democrats in 1993, it took all of Clinton's powers of persuasion and a last-minute plea to then-Sen. Bob Kerrey to pass his economic plan by a single vote.

* Democrats don't need to win 60 seats to reach 60 votes. For all the deep partisan divisions in Washington, most issues that come before the Senate don't produce straight party-line votes. This year, half a dozen Republicans joined Democrats to come within three votes of breaking a filibuster of the Lily Ledbetter equal-pay bill. The seats Democrats already appear set to pick up should ensure that bill reaches the next president's desk.

Indeed, Republicans' biggest worry may not be how many seats Democrats win this year but how hard it will be to keep their own troops in line next year. A banner Democratic year will spell more GOP defections ahead. In 2010, Republicans will have to defend 19 Senate seats, the Democrats just 15. Vulnerable incumbents who watched their colleagues fall in 2008 may start showing a maverick streak. If you can't beat a supermajority, join one.

On some ideas with broad public support, such as the expansion of children's health insurance, many Senate Republicans already folded their hand. The better Democrats do this year, the harder it will be for conservatives to revive the over-my-dead-body caucus that Phil Gramm formed to block Clinton's stimulus and health care plans in the early '90s.

* Bush is leaving Democrats a big tent—and an even bigger mortgage. For Congress and the new administration, the economic crisis—not the size of the majority—will be both the biggest constraint and the greatest action-forcing mechanism. A host of economic numbers will affect Democrats' fortunes more than whether their Senate caucus is over or under 60: how much unemployment goes up, how soon the housing and stock markets settle down, how sharply out-year revenue and deficit forecasts turn south. Republicans need not worry that Democrats will have a blank check; the Bush administration left behind an empty checkbook.

* Misery loves company. If Republicans are afraid of languishing on the sidelines, they can take heart: Democrats won't let them. Democrats will have good reasons, both practical and political, to reach across the aisle. As both parties have learned in the past month, digging out from under this economic crisis will require more pain than either party alone can bear. With a great deal of arm twisting, congressional Democrats might have been able to pass last month's rescue package without Republican votes. But on a matter of such consequence, they were right to insist on bipartisan buy-in.

In the next few years, there are bound to be more tough votes like that one. Democrats won't want to go it alone, even if they have the numbers to do so. With so much at stake, Americans will have zero tolerance for political games. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's warning to both parties still rings true: In the long run, the sweeping changes the country needs can succeed only with broad bipartisan support.

Red- and purple-state Democrats will be especially eager to keep Obama's promise of working across party lines to get the job done. It won't be lost on the new Democratic majority that in the last three decades, control of the Senate has changed hands more often (1980, '86, '94, 2001, '02, and '06) than control of the White House. Not so long ago, Democrats were the ones fretting about the GOP winning a filibuster-proof Senate. Come November, Democratic senators will be delighted to have all the extra company, but even with 60 seats, they'll still be eager to hold onto their own.

Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at thehasbeen@gmail.com. Read his disclosure here.

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