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Senate's Power Rests With Centrists Senate's Power Rests With Centrists

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Senate's Power Rests With Centrists

Democrats can't overcome filibusters without help from the middle.

With Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss's 57.5 percent to 42.5 percent victory in Georgia's runoff, Minnesota's contest is the only 2008 Senate race that remains undecided. Both Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken claim to hold the lead.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune's count shows Coleman up by 192 votes. The Office of the Secretary of State has the Republican up by 687 votes, although the department acknowledges that this number does not include an entire precinct in Minneapolis where 133 ballots have gone missing. The Franken campaign maintains that its candidate is ahead by four votes.


The state canvassing board is unlikely to declare a winner before the end of next week. And this thing could drag on much longer.

In the meantime, a hot topic among political junkies is that Democrats have fallen short of the nine-seat gain needed to secure a 60-seat, theoretically filibuster-proof majority. Often missing from such conversations is an acknowledgment that preventing filibusters is not exclusively about whether a senator wears a red or blue jersey. Rather, the ability to halt a filibuster comes down to specific issues, specific bills, and specific language and circumstances. Whether Connecticut's independent Democrat, Sen. Joe Lieberman, sides with Democrats or Republicans will depend on the issue being debated, not where he eats lunch on Tuesdays (when each party holds its weekly caucus). Several other senators on both sides of the aisle could easily fall into the same category.

In counting votes against a Republican filibuster, a key question is, "Can Democrats hold their centrists?" Using the 2007 National Journal vote ratings as a yardstick, the Democrats in the middle, from right to left, are Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska; Mary Landrieu of Louisiana; Mark Pryor of Arkansas; Max Baucus of Montana; Kent Conrad of North Dakota; Claire McCaskill of Missouri; Byron Dorgan of North Dakota; Ken Salazar of Colorado; Thomas Carper of Delaware; Jim Webb of Virginia; Jon Tester of Montana; Evan Bayh of Indiana; Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas; and Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Among the seven incoming freshmen, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Warner of Virginia are the ones most likely to line up in the center. Nobody is quite certain where Oregon's Jeff Merkley will stand.


The 111th Congress will have 23 to 26 relatively centrist senators.

Although the ranks of centrist Republican senators have been depleted in recent years, a few still remain, notably, from left to right, Olympia Snowe of Maine; Susan Collins of Maine; Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania; Norm Coleman (if he's re-elected); George Voinovich of Ohio; Richard Lugar of Indiana; and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Plus, it is not exactly unheard-of for Arizona's John McCain to stray off the GOP reservation.

This means that the 111th Congress will have 23 to 26 relatively centrist senators. That's not an inconsequential number. It is also important to note that the Senate has only about 41 true-blue liberals.

Therefore, even if fairly liberal legislation passes the House, where the number of moderate Democrats is not insignificant either, the odds are good that it won't get through the Senate even with a filibuster-proof majority -- and even if President Obama supports the bill. And that doesn't get into the fact that, at least so far, key positions in the Obama administration are going to pragmatic centrists.


So, all this talk of Democrats needing 60 Senate seats fails to capture the party's true situation. What votes the Democrats will need in the Senate will depend on the exact issue, bill, language, and circumstances. There may well be times when Democrats can hold their moderates and pick off enough Republican defectors to break a conservative filibuster. And there may be times when they can't.

What is unlikely to vary is that Democrats will have to temper their proposals if they want to have a realistic chance of getting them enacted. Although it is legitimate for liberals to be disappointed that the Left won't be able to dominate the Senate, centrists should rejoice that they will matter, regardless of their jersey's color. With approximately a quarter of the Senate potentially making up the swing vote, the middle-of-the-roaders will have a lot of sway.

If anyone should be concerned right now, it shouldn't be centrists. It should be liberals. The change they are going to get may not be the kind that they wanted.

This article appears in the December 13, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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