With a 59-40 majority — just short of what they need to overcome GOP filibusters — Democrats watched helplessly this week as Republicans blocked the confirmation of one of Barack Obama’s top Interior Department nominees.
They also struggled with the confirmation of one of Obama’s Justice Department picks, witnessed the adoption of an amendment allowing guns inside national parks and suffered major pushback against Obama’s plans to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
And with contentious fights over health care, climate change and Obama’s first Supreme Court pick ahead, some Democratic senators are now convinced that they can’t wade into some of the hot-button social issues their supporters would like them to pursue.
“They should not take anything for granted,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who as majority whip has the job of counting votes. “People keep saying, ‘Wow, if you get Sen. Franken up in Minnesota, everything is going to be fine — you’ll be at 60.’ I’ve never said that, I know, because I face these senators every day, and I know that each of them has their own mind.”
Although Democrats now appear to have the votes to confirm David Hayes for the No. 2 job at the Interior Department, they will have trouble confirming Dawn Johnsen as head of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel even if Franken gets them to 60. Republicans have opposed her nomination because of her past involvement with an abortion rights group, and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) so far is determined to deny his party the votes it needs to overcome a filibuster.
“No way I can vote for her,” Nelson said.
Other recalcitrant Democrats will most likely keep the party from passing new gun control laws — including a high-priority effort to close the so-called gun-show loophole. The Democrats’ problems there became clear this week when GOP Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma had an easy time attaching his national parks gun amendment to an unrelated credit card bill.
“Not interested in any more gun laws — we got plenty on the books,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska. Added Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia: “I think we ought to enforce our existing rules and not add new ones.”
Centrist Democrats like Begich and Warner — both freshmen — helped the Democrats get to the cusp of 60, but they’ll also make leaders’ lives more difficult. The Democratic caucus is more ideologically diverse than it has been in the past, thanks in large part to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the former head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who over the past two election cycles recruited centrist and conservative candidates to compete — and eventually win — in red states.
Schumer said recently that divisions within the caucus are a natural outgrowth of its diversity.
“The idea that now with 60 we can pass everything quickly and easily — no,” Schumer said. “And the beauty of our caucus is, first, it’s diverse.”
Not everyone thinks it’s beautiful.
“Harry Reid concerns me frequently, but so do a lot of other members, like all the ones who don’t agree with me,” said Rep. John Conyers, the liberal Democrat from Michigan who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Among the items he’s pushing are a ban on assault weapons and an independent investigation into allegations that the Bush administration engaged in acts of torture — both of which are opposed by the Senate majority leader.
Still, Conyers is sympathetic to Reid’s plight.
“If yu have 60 cats, you got to get them all together in the same place to get something done,” Conyers said. “Herding senators and herding cats have a lot in common.”
If the Democrats get to 60, every member will be empowered to demand concessions in exchange for his or her filibuster-busting vote. Also in the catbird’s seat: Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, to whom Democratic leaders will have to turn whenever they lose one of their own.
“They can’t be confident of which 60 they’re going to get when it comes to intricate issues and complex issues as health care,” said Snowe. Obama has worked to woo the moderate Republican; he had a 20-minute one-on-one meeting with her earlier this month just to get her “take on things,” she said.
Added Collins: “Because there are a number of moderate to conservative Democrats, I believe that the Obama administration is still going to need to put together coalitions of centrists in order to get anything done. I don’t see the Democrats as having reached 60 in reality.”
One of the Senate’s most liberal Democrats seemed to acknowledge as much this week.
“The issues are there, and you try to fight to win,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “When you have a critical mass you win. And when you don’t, you lose.”