INSIGHT: Democrats’ super majority is no sure thing

02 July 2009 17:39  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

Democrats now hold a super-majortiy in US SenateWASHINGTON (ICIS news)--With court confirmation this week of former comedian Al Franken as the new senator from Minnesota, Democrats in the US Senate have now achieved the Holy Grail of Senate deliberation - a 60-vote super majority.

That means that the Democrats can easily quash efforts by the minority Republicans to block legislation.

Well, maybe not quite so easily.

In theory, the party that holds 60 seats in the Senate can at will vote cloture, meaning they can vote to end debate on a bill and proceed to a vote. 

A bill can pass in the 100-seat Senate with as little as 51 votes.  But to end debate, you have to have 60 senators saying “Enough, let’s vote!”

Because of the lopsided margin needed to end debate - which resulted from an 1806 Senate rule change that left no alternative means for ending discussion - various minorities in the US upper chamber over the years have used the filibuster or endless talk to block a final vote on legislation they oppose.

Often when a filibuster is launched - or even if the minority party merely threatens a filibuster - a bill’s sponsors will pull the matter from consideration.

In the current political climate, Republicans and their allies in commerce and industry had been relying on the filibuster as a last-ditch opportunity in the Senate to block legislation - climate change, health care reform, easing of labour union election rules, etc. - that they could not otherwise defeat in straight-up votes in either the House or Senate.

Both major US parties have lusted for the 60-vote super majority, but it does not necessarily ensure that the party with all the muscle necessarily gets its way.

Nor is the 60-vote super majority necessarily a sure thing for Democrats in the Senate now.

First, there are only 58 Democrats in the Senate, not 60.  The two senators who style themselves as “independent” and not affiliated with either party are Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernard Sanders of Vermont.

Lieberman is a lifelong Democrat and only changed to “independent” status because he lost his state Democrat Party nomination for the Senate race in 2006 and ran successfully as an independent to hang on to his seat.  

Although a long-time independent, Sanders also sides chiefly with Democrats and is part of the Democrat caucus, and he is counted as a Democrat for purposes of committee assignments.

So, de facto if not de jure, Democrats do have their 60-vote majority in the Senate.

But, not so fast.

Two key Democrats, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Robert Byrd of West Virginia, are both in ill health and only rarely have participated in votes or other Senate business in the last six months or so.

In addition, there are a handful of Democrats who are considered, on some issues, moderate or even conservative.

Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, for example, is decidedly to the right of the political spectrum when it comes to energy issues. With onshore and offshore oil and gas development so crucial to her state’s economy, Landrieu usually joins Republicans in the “Drill, baby, drill!” mantra advocating expanded exploration and production of domestic US hydrocarbon resources.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, newly appointed to the Senate to serve out former Senator Hillary Clinton’s term when the latter was named secretary of state, also displays some decidedly conservative philosophies.

Gillibrand supports extending President George Bush’s tax cuts - which other Democrats have decried as “tax cuts for the rich” - on grounds that the economy needs a lower tax burden.

She also is a strong supporter of US Second Amendment gun ownership rights, another position typical among Republicans and conservatives but rare among mainstream liberal Democrats.

Neither is Senator Mark Begich of Alaska what might be called a typical Democrat. Now serving his first term, he represents a decidedly conservative state that, like Landrieu’s Louisiana, is heavily dependent on oil and gas production for its economy.

Begich supports drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a declaration that would make most Democrats and environmentalists faint dead away.  He also is a strong backer of gun rights.

Those are just a few Senate Democrats who cannot be considered to be in lock-step with every issue the Democrat leadership or the White House might espouse.  Depending on the issue at hand, there are other Senate Democrats who might bolt the party on any given vote on any given day.

So, while on paper, Democrats do indeed command the much-sought Senate super-majority, making it work in terms of real politics can be another story altogether.

We may get a first look at how the 60-vote Democrat Senate will work when a climate bill comes up for consideration. There is enough in that controversial, 1,200-page monster bill to alienate perhaps dozens of senators, Republican and Democrat alike.

Major pieces of legislation are by nature controversial, often offending as many as they please, so putting together a 60-vote majority on any big issue is going to be tough for the Senate Democrat leaders.

Indeed, the Founding Fathers intended that it be difficult to get legislation passed in Congress, especially in the Senate.

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By: Joe Kamalick
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