In the Democratic Senate, Could Moderates Rule?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Kevin Dietsch / UPI / Landov

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada

The United States Senate is where sweeping change goes to die. That's the way the Founding Fathers planned it. In the world's greatest deliberative body, where each of 100 Senators is imbued with the power to stall legislation and where it's unusual for either party to hold a big majority, lockstep partisan unity is rarely a substitute for bipartisan consensus when the goal is getting things done. But what happens when one party skips away from Election Day holding at least 56 seats? Does the cooling saucer become a hot plate? Will the Democrats convert their big wins of 2008 into a liberal legislative juggernaut in 2009?

Much will depend on Barack Obama's direction and on the inclination of the bolstered Democratic Senate majority to take it. Unlike the Speaker of the House, the leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, is constrained by parliamentary rules from running roughshod over his own charges, not to mention the minority Republicans. There is no doubt the sharp increase in the number of Senate Democrats improves the chances that the new President will see his legislative priorities passed into law. But it is also true that as the Democrats have grown their ranks — first in 2006, and now this year — from meek to a muscular majority, they have expanded the ideological diversity of their caucus. Not every new Democratic Senator will share the priorities of his or her colleagues.

"Obama and Reid will have a big working margin," says Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist who worked on several successful Senate races. "But the Senate still will be, as it was designed to be, a check on the House and even the White House. It will slow things down."

Among the new additions to the Senate are two Democrats from the mountain West, Tom Udall from New Mexico and his cousin Mark Udall from Colorado, and two from the South, Virginia's Mark Warner and North Carolina's Kay Hagan. Like Jon Tester of Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri from the class of 2006, these new Senators reflect the sensibilities of their constituents; they aren't likely to march leftward in lockstep. They and other moderates will be with Obama and the majority Democrats in many cases, but not all. That's why the Democrats' falling short in their bid for the much ballyhooed threshold of 60 seats is less significant than the hype suggests. (See pictures of 60 years of election night drama.)

"I don't think 60 matters, because I think it's a phony number," says Jennifer Duffy, a top analyst with the Cook Political Report. "They're going to lose a lot of Democratic votes on some issues. And the Republican moderates have been decimated, so there are fewer of them to pick up. The Democrats will be able to move a lot of the agenda. But when they get to the hard stuff — like big tax increases or health care — they're going to have to compromise."

According to Harry Reid's senior aide, Jim Manley, the majority leader knows he has to check any impulse in the Democratic caucus to try to ram bills through without GOP support. For the longer-serving among them, memories of what happened after Bill Clinton's first two years in the White House, when Democrats controlled both houses, are still fresh and painful; then, the pursuit of what the public perceived as an overly liberal agenda led to a GOP blowout in the 1994 midterm elections, ushering in 12 years of Republican control of Congress. (Read "Congressional Races to Watch '08.")

"There is enough institutional memory of what happened [in 1994] to make them want to avoid some of those pitfalls," says Manley. "But I also think some of the younger members are also very cognizant of avoiding that. The Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate understands that the Democrats need to handle our majority the way the Republicans didn't — by working with members of both parties on legislation that improves the lives of working Americans."

The new Senate will be a hospitable place for President Obama to send his nominations for Cabinet posts and the bench to be confirmed. More Democrats overall means that the balance between parties in key committees will shift, creating a cushion and making it less likely that a controversial nomination would be voted down or sent to the full Senate without a positive recommendation.

There will be at least two other new Senators who weren't elected yesterday but who will take the oath of office soon nonetheless: by winning the White House, Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, leave their Senate seats vacant. But both Illinois and Delaware have Democratic governors who get to appoint interim Senators — and are certain to pick Democrats.

One uncertainty is Joe Lieberman, the Democrat turned independent who still caucuses with the Democrats but was one of John McCain's highest-profile supporters in the presidential campaign. Lieberman didn't just support McCain; he spoke at the GOP Convention. And Reid is said to believe that Lieberman egregiously distorted Obama's record in his speech. Now that the Democrats have a bigger majority, there's a good chance Reid will strip Lieberman of his chairmanship of the Government Affairs committee — in effect, booting him from the Democratic fold.

For the new Democratic President, big majorities in Congress can serve as a honeymoon extender. If Obama takes an agenda to Capitol Hill that doesn't inflame partisan tensions, the Senate could deliver him victories and thereby send the signal that Washington is working again. But if Obama overreaches, the Senate will be the place where he runs into trouble. As one Obama adviser says, "We know the Senate controls the fate of our agenda."

(See the next President's to-do list.)

(See TIME's Pictures of the Week.)