Friday, September 19, 2008

111th Congress Senate Forecast: Overcast With Chance of Gridlock

As the 2008 election looks good for the Democrats in the Senate, who, as we said yesterday, will probably pick up between 4-5 seats and enlarge their majority to 55 or 56 (and likely enlarge the majority in the House of Representatives to 242 from the current 233), it would seem that Democrats might actually be able to pass significant amounts of legislation. This would be even more likely if Obama wins the presidency, eliminating the veto threat and negating the need to broker as many deals with Republicans.

Despite the almost certain increase in Democratic majority in the Senate, Democrats will likely still face an uphill battle against Republicans in trying to pass legislation. Even Democrats admit that Republicans are masters of parliamentary procedure and excel at putting the procedural brakes on legislation. They also aren't timid about using that power in the current political environment.

Republicans set a new record for filibusters in the Senate during the 110th Congress measured by the number of cloture votes (a motion to cut of debate and vote on a bill or amendment). The Republicans set the
record at 62 in December of 2007, only halfway through the Congressional term. That surpassed the 107th Congress's 61 votes between 2001-02, when Democrats had just regained control of the Senate and Bush had just defeated Gore for the presidency.

Republicans may be on track to have over 100 cloture votes this Congress, and they are open about their strategy of obstruction. According to the
New York Times, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader, said in December "I think we can stipulate once again for the umpteenth time that matters that have any level of controversy about it in the Senate will require 60 votes." This strategy has two basic levels: win over the Republican base by stopping Democrats; and (more incredibly) blame Democrats for not accomplishing anything while being in charge for the first time in 12 years. This is indeed a demonstration of dramatic irony as up until this Congress, Republicans lambasted Democrats for using the filibuster and threatened the so-called "nuclear option" of eliminating it altogether.

It may not make sense—or even be valid—for Republicans to blame Democrats for a slow down in legislation; but it is effective as a message to the average American who does not follow Congress’s daily proceedings. Even McCain has called this Congress the "do-nothing" Congress, despite the fact that he and his party are the ones slowing down legislation.

Many Democrats are hoping a greater majority in the Senate and House, along with a Democratic president, will allow them to pass a great deal of legislation that has so far languished as a result of the use of the filibusters, procedural maneuvering, and presidential vetoes. However, even if the Democrats gain 56 seats, the largest number they are most likely to achieve in 2008, they would still need 4 Republican votes to pass any legislation. Democrats have, at times, been able to gain up to 6 or 7 Republicans to vote for their cloture motions to cut of debate and end a filibuster, but Republican discipline is remarkably tough.

However, the Democratic gains would most likely replace the moderates that vote with them already; this still means the Democrats come up 4 votes shy of the necessary 60. On the
ideological spectrum, the most moderate Republican Seats Seats are Gordon Smith of Oregon, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Arlen Spectre of Pennsylvania. This leaves 5 Republicans more likely to work with Democrats than not, which would seem to allow the Democrats to achieve 61 votes in the Senate when needed.

One problem with this scenario is that Democrats are unlikely to always get all five of these moderate Republican votes. Another problem is that Joe Lieberman of Connecticut not only actively supports John McCain, but he attacked Barrack Obama at the Republican convention and, according to, either wildly exaggerated the truth or simply lied about Obama's record in order to undermine the Democrats. Lieberman will likely lose his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee, and it is also quiet possible that he will be booted out of the Democratic caucus; he is already an Independent, which would cause him to caucus with Senate Republicans.

This puts Democrats back at 55 seats, meaning that they would have to get every single moderate to vote with them on any piece of legislation with which Republicans have even the slightest disagreement (which would be a majority of legislation). Democrats would likely pass far more legislation than they have so far, and with a Democratic president things would be even easier (relative to the current stand still), but this still presents a huge uphill battle against Republicans who hold the advantage when it comes to procedural maneuvering.

In order to truly advance their own agenda without any significant Republican interference, Democrats would need to pick up 6-7 seats in the Senate, creating a 57-58 majority, as well as with winning the Presidential race. This means they need to pick up
Senate seats in States like like North Carolina, Mississippi, Minnesota, and Oregon, which are close, but have consistently polled in the Republican candidates’ favors.

This does not mean Democrats won't be in a far better position than they are now, where the Republicans can often effectively dictate their own agenda while halting the Democrats and simultaneously blaming them for the slow down.
Polling has tightened up in all 2008 elections, after swinging in the Republicans’ favor for the last few weeks, but it remains an uphill battle with momentum still with the Democrats.

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