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Democrats Aim for a 60-Vote Senate

Democrats Aim for a 60-Vote Senate

By Kimberley Strassel - August 22, 2008

Here's an intriguing thought: The John McCain-Barack Obama fight isn't this season's biggest political story. That honor should be reserved for the intense Democratic push to win a filibuster-proof Senate majority.

Democrats know this is a huge prize, and they are throwing at least as much money and sweat into that effort as they are into electing Mr. Obama. What isn't clear is that voters are as aware of the stakes. An unstoppable Democratic Senate has the potential to alter the balance of power in Washington in ways not yet seen.

A quick recap of the numbers: Republicans must defend 23 seats, compared to 12 for the Democrats. Of those GOP slots, 10 are at potential risk: Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Oregon, Colorado, Alaska, Mississippi, Maine and North Carolina. The Democrats claim only one vulnerable senator this year, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu. Depending on how big a day the party has in November, it is at least conceivable Democrats could get the nine seats they need to hit the magic 60.

The nation has had prior almighty Senates, of course, and it hasn't been pretty. Free of the filibuster check, the world's greatest deliberative body tends to go on benders. It was a filibuster-proof Democratic majority (or near to it, in his first years) that allowed FDR to pass his New Deal. It was a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate that allowed Lyndon Johnson to pass his Great Society.

Note, however, that it could have been worse. These were days with more varied political parties. Rebellious Democrats teamed up with Republicans to tangle with Roosevelt. Johnson ran the risk that the GOP would ally with Southern Democrats. There was some check.

As Karl Rove pointed out to me recently, the real risk of a 2009 filibuster-proof Senate is that the dissidents are gone. According to Congressional Quarterly, in 1994 Senate Democrats voted with their party 84% of the time. By 1998, that number was 86%. CQ's most recent analysis, of votes during the George W. Bush presidency, showed Democratic senators remained united 91% of the time. Should he get his 60 seats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be arguably more influential than the president.

Sure, 60 votes isn't enough to override a presidential veto. But a filibuster-proof majority would put Mr. Reid in almost complete control of the agenda. That holds equally true whether we have a President McCain or a President Obama.

A lot of voters are drawn to Mr. Obama's promises of bipartisanship. But with a filibuster-proof Senate, what Mr. Obama promised will be of secondary concern. Even if the presidential hopeful is sincere about working across the aisle (and that's a big if), Ted Kennedy, Pat Leahy, Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold will prefer to do things their way. They'll be looking for opportunities to let their former rookie Senate colleague know who is in charge.

Mr. Reid won't necessarily need 60 votes to hold Washington's whip hand. With a contingent of blue-state Republicans (think Maine's Olympia Snowe), Mr. Reid could peel off votes and have an "effective" filibuster with just 57 or 58 seats. That may not be enough to accomplish every last item on his wish list, but close.

That wish list? Take a look at what House Democrats (who aren't burdened with a filibuster) unilaterally passed last year: The biggest tax increase in history; card check, which eliminates secret ballots in union organizing elections; an "energy" bill that lacks drilling; vastly expanded government health insurance; new powers to restrict pharmaceutical prices. Add to this a global warming program, new trade restrictions (certainly no new trade deals) and fewer private options in Medicare.

This explains why Congressional Democrats currently aren't moving spending bills, or energy bills, or anything. They are waiting for next year, when they hope to no longer have to deal with pesky Republicans. This also explains the Senate's paltry judicial confirmations this Congress. They want more vacancies. With a filibuster-proof majority, Democrats could reshape the judiciary under a President Obama, or refuse to confirm any Antonin Scalia-type appointments made by a President McCain.

Party leaders feel the Senate GOP can remain an effective opposition if it holds Democrats to 55 seats. If Republicans can continue to ride the energy debate, that just might be possible. As it is, they are feeling more confident about even tough fights in states like Colorado, Oregon or Minnesota.

Then again, it's a long way to November. Anything can happen. And if Congressional Democrats have their way, that "anything" will be undiluted power in Washington.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

Kimberley Strassel

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