NPR logo Sixty In the Senate: Be Careful What You Wish For

Sixty In the Senate: Be Careful What You Wish For

We've been hearing it for as long as we can remember. To make Big Things happen in Washington, the conventional wisdom says you need the Big Three: the presidency, control of the House of Representatives and 60 votes in the Senate.

It is not unusual for one party or the other to have a grip on the first two of these levers, but it has been nearly 30 years since either party had the third. Those three decades have given rise to the Myth of 60.

Senate rules require a three-fifths majority to cut off debate and vote on an issue of significance. That means a filibuster by a handful — or even a single senator — can freeze the institution in place. Without the 60 votes it needs for cloture, the majority can set the agenda, but it cannot necessarily bring any element of it to fruition.

And that, in turn, allows whichever party is nominally in charge to blame its frustrations largely on its lack of 60 votes in the Senate.

That myth is about to busted.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that Al Franken won the disputed Senate election in that state last November. It has taken eight months, several recounts and two court cases to reach this point, but Franken will be sworn in next week.

Combining Franken's win with the seven other seats Democrats wrested from the GOP in November 2008, and tossing in party-switcher Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Majority Leader Harry Reid now finds himself with 58 card-carrying members of his caucus. And when you tack on the two independents, Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, as the Democrats usually do when there's a party-line roll call vote, you have 60 on one side.

That means Nirvana for Reid, right? No. It might just make his life miserable.

Just because 60 people put their feet under Harry's table at the weekly Democratic policy luncheon does not guarantee him that many votes on the floor. Even if Sanders and Lieberman prove relatively reliable, you cannot say the same for all the official Democrats.

In two cases, there are issues of health. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts is suffering from cancer and has not been seen on the Senate floor in weeks. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia has been in and out of the hospital and at 91 is a question mark on any given day.

Let's assume for the moment that on a major issue, both Byrd and Kennedy (the two longest-serving Democrats in Senate history) will find a way to weigh in. The real problem may come from those Democrats who are physically hale but whose political position is delicate.

Reid's most immediate problem may be the last vestiges of the Southern Democrats, a rump caucus that once dominated the chamber. Jimmy Carter had to worry about 18 Southern Democrats in the Senate in 1979, a power bloc that still considered itself the fulcrum for the institution. President Obama, by contrast, needs to tend to just seven, all of whom are very much products of the New South.

That means Reid and his Senate majority will find their consensus point somewhere well to the left of where it was in Carter's day.

But that fact alone raises the prospect of breakaway Democrats spoiling the perfection of 60. Even if all seven Southern Democrats do go along, Reid must keep an eye on Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Begich of Alaska — just to name a few.

But if having 60 votes on paper is not a guarantee of success, it is only a guarantee that expectations will escalate. And in that sense it is more a burden than a boon.

That is the real downside to the new Democratic domination. What will the party do when shorn of the time-tested excuse of the filibuster?

Think about the House side of the equation. The chairmen of House committees have long been told they had to bend to the Senate version of legislation because of the filibuster and the challenges of life in the Senate. They are weary of watering down their bills so as to serve the peculiar prerogatives of "the other body."

Given the new math, everyone from David Obey at Appropriations to Charlie Rangel at Ways and Means and John Conyers at Judiciary is going to wonder why he still has to knuckle under.

Isn't it time, they will ask, for Reid to get his Democrats in line and vote these big Barack Obama initiatives and systemic overhauls into law?

And if Reid responds by doing precisely that, won't he make the Senate circus all the more partisan?

It may appear that attaining 60 votes is achieving the Holy Grail. But in fact, it is a distraction and even a temptation.

The true path to greater achievement in the Senate does not depend on a three-fifths majority oppressing a two-fifths minority. It relies on skillful leaders to craft compromises that allow supermajorities to form on big issues, supermajorities that include members from both parties.

That is how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, and in those days it took a far more daunting two-thirds majority (67) to shut off debate. Bipartisan deals also passed the tax cuts of the early 1980s and the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.

There were similar moments in nearly every presidency since. And there may be more in the months to come.

The key is to bust the Myth of 60 as a magic wand for passing one-party bills. It may be useful as a threat or a fallback strategy, but reliance on a party-line vote to 60 will not bring Senate passage of health care, energy or financial regulation bills that truly matter.

For that, the president and his party will have to make law the old-fashioned Senate way, by bringing votes across the aisle one at a time.