With Barack Obama's chances of winning the White House now exceeding 95 percent and healthy gains projected for Democrats in the House, the election-day nail-biter appears to have devolved to the partisan count in 35 Senate races.
There is no doubt that Democrats will control the Senate leadership in 2009. The question is, can they cobble together a 60-vote super-majority that would immunize them from the threat of GOP fillibustering?
A casual look at the numbers suggests the Democrats are tantalizingly close. A slightly closer look, however, declares that a true super-majority is very likely beyond their reach, even in a landslide election.
The number matters because the "deliberative body's" peculiar rules require a 60-vote super-majority to shut down an attempted filibuster.It's been 28 years since either party enjoyed that advantage (the Democrats had 61 senators from 1976-80). With 60 assured votes, the majority can pretty much have its way; without it, the minority has far greater leverage when it comes to forcing compromise.
This is a bad year for Republicans in general, but it's far worse when it comes to the Senate: Of the 35 seats up for election, the GOP has to defend 23 of them, and five of those GOP seats are vacant (there are no vacancies among the 12 seats held by Democrats). Making matters even worse, GOP stalwart Ted Stevens is on trial for corruption.
Here's the scorecard as maintained by the excellent polling site FiveThirtyEight.com, rearranged into a blue-to-red continuum to reveal the landscape a bit more clearly. Names and states in blue represent seats that are currently held by Democrats. Names and states in red are seats held today by the GOP.
(Landrieu LA, Lautenberg NJ, Udall NM, Johnson SD, Harkin IA, Warner VA, Levin MI, Durbin IL, Baucus MT, Biden DE, Kerry MA, Pryor AR, Reed RI, Rockefeller WV)
LIKELY DEM 2
(Shaheen NH, Udall CO)
LEANS DEM 2
(Hagan NC, Merkley OR)
TILTS DEM 2
(Begich AK*, Franken MN*)
TILTS GOP 0
LEANS GOP 3
(Wicker MS, Chambliss GA, McConnell KY)
LIKELY GOP 0
SAFE GOP 12
(Johanns NE, Cornyn TX, Graham SC, Collins ME, Inhofe OK, Risch ID, Roberts KS, Cochran MS, Alexander TN, Barrasso WY, Enzi WY, Sessions AL)
As you can see, there are eight GOP seats in the Democratic column and zero Democratic seats available to the Republicans. Democratic control of the Senate, which currently depends on the tenuous support of McCain-backing independent Joe Liebermnan, is going to strengthen.
But here's the thing: There are eight pick-ups trending Democratic, and they need at least nine to get to 60. And if you really want to be realistic, you'd have to say that the leadership needs 61 seats to truly control a supermajority, since it's increasingly likely that Lieberman's days of Democratic affiliation are numbered in the double digits.
Once you do that math, it becomes clear that Democratic dreams of reaching that elusive super-majority rely on some enormously iffy propositions:
- You've got to continue to count on Lieberman, and on big issues like Iraq, Lieberman isn't a vote for the Democratic agenda regardless of where he caucuses.
- You've got to assume that at least one of the three "Leans GOP" races (Wicker in Mississippi, Chambliss in Georgia or McConnell in Kentucky) falls apart in the final week and flips blue. According to FiveThirtyEight's analysis, each of these three Republicans has at least a 70 percent chance of victory.
- Democratic senate leadership that's strong enough to deliver 60 votes on actual floor-fights.
Bottom line: While the Democrats have a 60 percent chance of getting to 55 seats and a 50 percent chance of reaching 58, their odds of reaching 60 drop to just 30 percent. And the 61-seat majority that would make up for Lieberman? A 20-percent chance.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
The big loser in all of this is Lieberman, whose only real chance of retaining his powerful committee assignments is a single loss among Wicker, Chambliss and McConnell. If all three win, Democrats throw him under the bus (where he belongs, IMHO); if two or more lose, Democrats throw him under the bus. His only hope is to represent that 60th vote, just as he today represents the 51st vote.
Democrats won't wield ultimate authority on Capitol Hill. But that doesn't mean they won't be able to create effective majorities on some key issues. With 55-58 seats strongly on the Democratic side, the party should be able to build winning coalitions on individual issues. Neither party has enjoyed that level of strength in the Senate since 2005-06.
Harry Reid might face a challenge. The Senate Majority Leader hasn't really impressed anyone with his leadership over the past two years. With a solid majority in the upper chamber, will Democrats consider an insurgency aimed at putting a stronger leader at the top of their caucus? They should -- and President Obama would do well to broker that deal early.
Another big winner? Beau Biden, the attorney general of Delaware. He's the hands-down favorite to replace his father in the Senate when Joe ascends to the vice-presidency (the only complication: He's stationed in Iraq at the moment). As for Obama's replacement, that's a little more complex. But it's going to be a Democrat. Here's my vote: Tammy Duckworth. Here's my guess: They'll give it to a party hack instead. In both cases, the governors are Democrats.
No matter the outcome, the Democrats are going to have the votes and the voter mandate to make legislative progress in 2009. Whether they will or not depends on the effectiveness of their leadership. If they fail to enact their agenda in 2009, don't expect them to accomplish much in 2010, and expect them to be less powerful in 2011. Midterm elections are seldom kind to the party in power.