The Specter Haunting the Senate

Columbia/Kobal Collection
Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The United States Senate, wrote chief New York Times congressional correspondent William S. White in 1957, is “a body that never wholly changes and never quite dies,” a place “where the national past and the national future meet and soundlessly merge.” White wrote those words when the Senate was on the brink of a revolution: the next three elections would bring roughly fifteen outright liberals to the chamber, adding to the handful already there. This irrevocably shifted the balance of power away from the Southern conservatives, creating the conditions that made possible the passage of the Great Society legislation. Fifty-three years later, though, White’s description is again becoming all too true. The Senate, except for a few brief moments such as the burst of activity in the 1960s and 1970s, has been where progressive legislation goes to die—not always soundlessly, but almost always.

The passage of the health care reform bill was an anomaly, a product of the fact that for the brief period between Al Franken’s certification as the junior senator from Minnesota (he was sworn in July 7, 2009) and Scott Brown’s as the new senator from Massachusetts almost exactly seven months later, the Democrats had the sixty votes needed to invoke “cloture,” i.e., cut off debate and bring any measure to the floor. Today, as midterm elections loom in which Republicans anticipate substantial gains, we can see clearly that there will not be sixty votes for a controversial piece of legislation for some time.
The Senate’s version of the financial reform bill squeaked by in May with the backing of four Republicans from blue states (Scott Brown, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine). Though it contained some strong provisions, the Senate bill was not nearly as forceful as liberals had hoped on matters like requiring banks to spin off their proprietary trading operations. In late July, Democrats acknowledged officially what had been clear for several months—that no major energy bill would make it through the Senate this year, leaving the House of Representatives’ bill, passed the previous June, to expire, with no prospect that the matter will be taken up in the near future.

And when Congress returns to work next January, the Senate will likely have five or six or even eight fewer Democrats, with an outside possibility that they will lose control of the body altogether. Major progressive legislation will become impossible. Even if President Obama wins a second term and the Democrats retain control in the House of Representatives and maintain their hold on fifty-four or fifty-five seats in the Senate—a substantial majority, in other words—they will be able to pass only contingent and watered-down versions of their programs. In politics, we normally consider 55 percent a commanding majority, even a landslide;…

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