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By Jay Cost

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What Does 60 Votes Mean?

With Al Franken now installed as Minnesota's second senator - a lot has been made about the Democrats having a "filibuster-proof" majority. Perhaps too much.

A filibuster-proof majority is great for the party that has it, but it has its limits. On purely party-line votes, perhaps procedural stuff, it should make a difference. But, on the really big stuff, what will matter is the preferences of the individual legislators.

The bonds of partisanship are relatively weak in the United States Congress, and especially weak in the Senate. This limits the power that the party in the chamber has over its members. Consider:

-Candidates who declare for the Senate do so of their own volition. They might receive encouragement from the party - but it's essentially up to them.

-Candidates put together their own campaign organizations, fundraising apparatus, staff, and so on. This outfit is responsible to the candidate and the candidate alone.

-At most, the party plays only a role of facilitator - and even then, that role is typically very modest.

-Candidates who win election to the Senate develop their own electoral connections to interest groups, well connected players, and key constituents - thereby making them even more independent when time comes for reelection.

-Typically, party leaders are tolerant of defecting members, especially in the Senate. Arlen Specter is a great example. He was probably one of the most unreliable Republican votes in the Senate, but this never stopped him from (a) receiving a great deal of financial support from his fellow members come election time or (b) advancing to the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee when it was his turn.

The implication of all this is that senators stand alone when they face the voters. The party did not get them into office, and it cannot keep them there. So, we should not expect Harry Reid and the other caucus leaders to have the ability to induce members to vote against their own preferences - at least not on the big stuff that captures public attention. This is not to say that the caucus party does not have power. It does. We just need to understand that this power is limited.

So what does 60 votes mean? Franken should be one of the most liberal members of the Senate. This helps move the chamber to the left. Additionally, when all Democratic senators are unified against all Republican senators on a particular issue - 60 votes means there is nothing the GOP can do. However, considering the moderates in both caucuses - Collins, Landrieu, Nelson, Snowe, Specter, etc. - I think the number of such cases will be relatively small. That's why I suggested procedural stuff that favors one party over the other. On climate change or health care - if they cannot write a bill that pleases Nelson and Landrieu, they'll have 58 votes, not 60. Don't expect them to toe the line, if toeing the line means voting against their constituents and putting their reelection at risk.

My intuition is that this is why Obama hypocritically put budget reconciliation on the table in the Spring. He wasn't simply worried about Republicans filibustering legislation he supported. Considering that at the time the GOP coalition included Collins, Snowe, and Specter - all of whom are quite moderate (and who joined up on the stimulus bill) - what were the chances that the President could not get at least one of these votes while still getting all of the Democrats? I'd say fairly slim, at least on the big stuff. My feeling is that budget reconciliation was put on the table to get around the effective veto of this moderate, bipartisan bloc, which used to sit in the middle of the entire chamber, but now with two big Democratic wins sits closer to the "filibuster pivot."