What’s Next; Senate Edition

Going into last night, Democrats were holding out hope they may achieve a filibuster proof majority of 60 seats in the Senate, but it now appears clear that the actual number is going to be more in the range of 55-57 seats. The Senate is important, of course, because of it’s institutional veto points, most notably the filibuster, and the burning question is how Democrats will manuever a bold agenda through a chamber structurally set up to oppose large scale change and popular movements. My answer is two-fold.

First of all, we should probably understand a certain incentive structure differently at the moment. Caucus size aside, Democrats have not lost single seat in 2 straight cycles now, and have made gains in such red states as Virginia and North Carolina, where they hold the seats formerly occupied by George Allen and Jesse F’ing Helms. Republicans in deep red Southern states like Georgia and Mississippi faced tough challenges this year, as did the chamber leader in Kentucky. By contrast, it looks like moderate Republican Gordon Smith may win a narrow re-election in blue Oregon, after campaigning on his relationship with Barack Obama, and Susan Collins won a landslide in Maine. So obviously the lesson here for any Republicans running in 2010, especially outside of the South, is that it probably pays to work with Democrats at the moment, and it’s also true that conservatives, in and out of the Senate, are going to have absolutely no leverage whatsoever against members like Collins. So it seems very likely to me to there should be a regular flow of moderate Republicans willing to cut deals on various parts of the Democratic agenda, even if the Southern bloc wants to obstruct. And John McCain will almostcertainly be in “atonement”mode very soon as well.

Secondly, in regards to the institutional challenges, my motto is that if you can’t beat them, manipulate them. There’s a lot of animosity directed at the filibuster in particular, but I think it’s important to remember that the filibuster is, by design, a tool to allow minority numbers to protect majority positions. The social security issue from 2005 is a perfect example; Bush campaigned on Iraq, terrorism, and insulting John Kerry, and then once re-elected with Republican majorities in the Congress decided to try to privatize part of social security out of nowhere. Obviously this wasn’t popular, but Bush couldn’t run for re-election because of term limits, and if Congressional Republicans had decided that implementing an ideological agenda was more important than getting re-elected in 2006, the filibuster would have been the only means left to stop them.

The problem, though, is the formal mechanism of filibustering. Because of C-Span and 24/7 rules, the Senate has reached a gentlemen’s agreement wherein you don’t actually have to carry out a filibuster to filibuster a package. And so I think the answer to the problem is simple; do away with that. Making Senatrs actually stand up and carry out a filibuster, especially in the era of cable news, would go a long way to insure that the filibuster is used properly as a tool to keep a majority party from pursuing deeply unpopular legislation without eliminating the means to prevent that entirely. The flip side of that is that it will become much harder to filibuster popular pieces of legislation. If you’re going to look like a fool all over the teevee, you’d better be doing it for something voters can get behind, and a glimpse of the absurdity of filibustering, say, universal healthcare will help create a public reaction that forces moderate Republicans to, at the very least, kill the filibuster.

It’s the best of both worlds as I see it.