Why 60 doesn't matter

Saxby Chambliss' victory in Georgia means the Democrats won't have their filibuster-proof majority -- but they aren't too worried about it.


Mike Madden
December 4, 2008 5:15AM (UTC)

WASHINGTON -- The political world is looking for some lasting significance out of Georgia's Senate runoff, which Saxby Chambliss won easily Tuesday night. And there is some, in fact: The result means, definitively, that Al Franken is now irrelevant -- Democrats can't get to 60 seats even if he wins the recount under way in Minnesota and takes Norm Coleman's place in the Senate.

Beyond reducing the importance of the Minnesota recount (at least for anyone who's not a resident of the state, a Coleman staffer or, like Franken, a comedian hoping to branch out into other lines of work), though, there probably won't be much in the way of lasting implications for the 111th Congress out of the Georgia runoff. The Democratic dream of 60 seats -- and therefore, an end to Republican filibusters -- may be dashed, but it was probably an illusion from the outset.

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That's because over the last two years, Democrats have knocked out nearly every Republican who was willing to break with the GOP on anything approaching a consistent basis -- and replaced them with moderate Democrats who will probably feel heavy political pressure to peel off from the majority. The big margin that Democrats will have next year, ironically, probably made it harder for Majority Leader Harry Reid to hold the caucus together on tough votes. People like Nebraska's Ben Nelson and Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor already split with Democrats frequently; chances are, incoming freshmen like North Carolina's Kay Hagan and Alaska's Mark Begich will start doing the same thing. Not to mention Joe Lieberman, saved by Barack Obama's fiat from being punished for his own frequent meanders into the Republican column on votes.

But even though Republican moderates are a vanishing breed, party discipline may be tough to enforce on both sides. At least three Republicans still should be willing to join Democrats on some issues -- Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter (who may be worrying about a unique challenge in two years).

"I always thought that 60 was kind of a phony number," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks the Senate for the Cook Political Report. "Its real power was psychological -- not that [Democrats] needed any more of a self-esteem boost, but they would have gotten one. It probably would have been more demoralizing for Republicans [to be at 40] than having just 41 or 42 seats."

Democrats claim they aren't too worried about the exact number they'll have, though, obviously, they say more is better. "Fifty-eight is the largest majority that we've had in decades," one leadership aide said. "We feel confident that we'll be able to enact a very robust agenda." Even without getting 60 votes, they expanded their numbers by enough to win larger majorities on every committee (and the extra staff and money that goes along with them), though negotiations about the exact makeup of the panels aren't finished yet.

Republicans have been making conciliatory-sounding noises since Obama's win last month, but it's not clear how long that friendly spirit will last. GOP leader Mitch McConnell sent Reid a letter a couple weeks ago, signed by every Republican senator, that indicated he'd be willing to go along with Democrats -- to a point. "When senators are permitted to fully debate and amend, we can work together to pass bipartisan legislation," he wrote. "Republicans will insist on our basic right to participate in the legislative process. The Republican Conference intends to protect the Senate's history of full and open consideration of major legislation, which includes a fair amendment process and the opportunity for debate." If you think there's a veiled threat in there, you're probably right. But the scale of Obama's win and the crisis the economy faces may have bought him some room to maneuver on policy early next year. (Transition aides, though, declined to comment about the Senate margin and what that might mean for Obama's legislative agenda.)

Besides, Democrats think Republicans only hurt themselves when they block legislation. "For two years, they tried the strategy of obstruction," said the leadership aide, who wanted to remain anonymous to discuss the partisan rivalry in the Senate. "Obstructing everything big and small -- it obviously didn't work out for them."

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Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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