For Senate Dems, 60 Is Still Elusive

On his dreamiest Election Night, Sen. Charles Schumer has visions of picking off long-shot red states like Mississippi, Alaska and North Carolina, riding what he calls a “tectonic” shift that would endow his Senate Democrats with the elusive 60th vote.

But as the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee chairman, Schumer is paid to be optimistic, and the reality is that even if Democrats run perfect campaigns across the country, the stars align and John McCain has absolutely no coattails, Democrats will most likely fall short of the filibuster-proof majority they so desperately seek.

Republicans are girding themselves for losses in open Senate seats in Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico, and they fear that blue state Republicans like Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire and Norm Coleman of Minnesota will go down, too.

But even if Democrats win all those close races, they will end up with 56 Democrats grinding against a surviving corps of dedicated Senate conservatives, meaning the Senate may very well remain the burial ground for a liberal Democratic agenda — even under a President Obama or Clinton.

That means that, despite all the rosy predictions for Senate election gains, the 2009 power dynamic in the Senate will almost certainly remain as the Founding Fathers intended: a chamber where both parties have to muddle through uncomfortable compromise to get much of anything done.

It also means that, if Democrats take the White House, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will be the Republicans’ most important man, standing between a unified Democratic government and a sweeping change in policies on everything from the Iraq war to taxes to health care.

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“It means those of us who are in the center, whether Democrats or Republicans are in control, will continue to play a key role on controversial issues,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who herself is one of Schumer’s top targets. “Sixty is truly a magic number, but I consider it to be impossible. There won’t be a different dynamic up here.”

Senate election expert Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report says that on a bad night, Democrats will pick up three seats and achieve 54 votes. On a good night, they might hit 57.

Virtually no one, outside of the most optimistic GOP fundraisers, believes that the Republicans will retake the Senate.

“On the hard stuff, [Democrats] would still need Republican votes,” Duffy said.

Schumer sees this potential and feels pressure from high-level Democrats to make sure the Senate doesn’t remain a suffocation chamber for the Democratic agenda.

“Our two [presidential] candidates have told me, ‘If you only stay at 51 [Democrats], we’ll have to curb what we can get done,’” Schumer said.

Schumer believes that even with 55 Democratic senators, “you’re likely to pick up Republicans on a few key votes” and push more Democratic policies through the Senate.

But Republicans, if they lose the White House, would have little incentive to give in to Democrats, primarily because the GOP senators left behind would be a hardened, unified group of conservatives.

“Republicans would be emboldened to cause problems, because there’d be no one to blame but Democrats” if things don’t get done, said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs. “Mitch McConnell would be the sole voice of the party, the guy who shapes how Americans view Republicans.”

If McCain is elected president, of course, all bets are off, as Senate Republicans will be energized to filibuster Democratic legislation, sustain vetoes and force votes on GOP amendments. In other words, it would be just like it is today.


Sen. ohn Ensign (R-Nev.), Schumer’s counterpart at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is essentially putting his finger in the dike, defending 23 GOP seats this year.

For Ensign, losing only a couple of seats would be a moral victory, and he embraces Schumer’s optimism if only because it keeps the standards low for Republicans.

“I love people who are overconfident,” Ensign said. “This far out, ... predictions don’t mean anything.”

For Democrats to get to 59 seats, they would need to hold onto all of their existing seats, win all of the seats for which the DSCC’s internal polling shows them ahead — those representing Alaska, Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Virginia — and pick up three more seats for Democratic-leaning states where Republican incumbents have shown significant resilience.

Coleman, Collins and Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) lie in the second tier of potential Democratic pickups, the ones that the Democrats need to sweep to have any chance of coming close to winning 60 seats.

The challenge in beating any of these moderates is that they have diverged from President Bush on key issues such as the war and spending, and they are selling a distinctly moderate record on the campaign trail.

Collins, for example, opposed the administration’s surge in Iraq and supported expanding the children’s health insurance program despite a Bush veto.

Coleman is touting his work with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to secure federal funding to rebuild the collapsed interstate highway in Minneapolis.

And Smith has now come out in opposition to the Iraq war and has been critical of the surge.

At a pen-and-pad briefing outlining the party’s congressional prospects, Schumer suggested Tuesday that these senators’ independent streaks won’t be enough to overcome the Republican Party label.

“What we’re finding is that Republicans who have changed their tune over the last year — who might have voted with George Bush 90-95 percent of the time over the last year and are now in the 70s — think they’re getting well, but they’re getting sicker,” said Schumer. “They’re trying to be bipartisan, but it isn’t working.”

There is one area where Democrats would benefit from a healthier majority that falls short of 60 votes: Senate committee makeup. If Democrats have a majority somewhere in the mid-50s, they would be able to seat a two-vote majority on most committees, meaning legislation would emerge from committees with a decidedly liberal tilt.

Some Democratic committee chairmen, such as Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), have complained recently that they can’t be as aggressive in their committees with only a one-vote margin.

“[A larger majority] changes policy, because Democrats would always win in committee with a two-vote margin,” said Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University who specializes in Senate history. “Policy will move to the left.”

And, Schiller adds, the number 60 might not actually be all that magical for a Democratic Party that historically has a tendency to fracture when it has large governing majorities.

“Suddenly, every Democratic vote is valuable, and every Democratic senator has the incentive to hold out,” Schiller said. “The reality is, you’ll still need a bipartisan coalition to get things done.”