December 2007

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Cots being brought into Senate July 17, 2007 in preparation for Republican filibuster to prevent Senate from voting to bring U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by Spring 2008. 

Special Dossier: Presidential Primaries

Cutting Off Debate
Our dysfunctional Congress

Public approval ratings for the 110th Congress have plummeted to a historic low of 18% [Gallup Poll]  --- even lower than the approval rating for Bush. Many have blamed the Democratic Congress for their failure to live up to many of their campaign promises such as getting us out of the quagmire in Iraq or holding the Bush administration accountable.

On the other hand, the House of Representatives under the direction of Nancy Pelosi has passed many promised pieces of legislation including her famous "100 hour agenda."

What went wrong?

Sometimes the problem lies with the White House. Since the Democrats took control of Congress, Bush has vetoed:

  • research on embryonic stem cells (S5)
  • funding for the troops in Iraq including a timeline for withdrawal of troops (HR1591).
  • an extension of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) (HR976)
  • the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 (HR1495, enacted as Pub.L. 110-114 over the President’s veto) 
  • the 2008 budget for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies (HR3043).

Democrats hope that by taking control of the White House next year they will not have to contend with presidential vetoes. However, in most cases, that will not make a difference because the legislation never got to the White House.

The vast majority of the House’s accomplishments simply died in the Senate.

Why? Don’t the Democrats control the Senate? Why can’t they pass their own legislation?

Bernie Sanders (VT)

Actually, only 49 Senators belong to the Democratic party, so the Democratic razor-thin "majority" depends entirely on the support of independents Bernie Sanders (VT) and Joe Lieberman (CT). However, while Lieberman does caucus with the Democrats, as often as not, he votes with the Republicans, leaving the Democrats in the minority.

Joe Lieberman (CT) and President George W. Bush

Even when the Democrats get the support of a handful of Republicans, they often can not turn their majority into legislative successes because Senate rules allow a determined minority to filibuster bills and prevent them from coming up for vote. The Senate operates by consensus. A bill cannot be voted into law without ending debate, and according to the rules of the Senate this requires a vote for "cloture" by a 60-vote supermajority.

To break a Republican filibuster, Democrats would need the support of three-fifths of the Senate, a nearly impossible feat.

Last July, McClatchy reported "This year Senate Republicans are threatening filibusters to block more legislation than ever before." McClatchy continued: "Nearly one in six roll-call votes in the Senate this year have been cloture votes. If this pace of blocking legislation continues, this 110th Congress will be on track to roughly triple the previous record number of cloture votes"

Republican whip Trent Lott told Roll Call, "The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail... and so far, it is working for us."

This is ironic, since in the rare instances where the Democrats tried to filibuster, the press declared their action "extremist" and they were threatened with the "nuclear option" --- the suspension of their ability to extend debate. In contrast, the media describes the deliberately obstructionist Republican tactic simply as a "procedure hurdle which requires 60 votes to pass legislation." In fact, usually the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to kill a bill. The Democrats only once forced the Republican minority to carry out their threat making the Republicans literally stay up all night to block the return of our troops from Iraq.

As part of this deliberate obstruction, they prevented a simple up or down vote on a variety of popular measures including:

  • Giving Washington DC representation in the House of Representatives
  • Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices
  • Increasing the minimum wage
  • Ending the War in Iraq
  • Providing a tax credit for wind or solar energy
  • Passing comprehensive immigration reform

By shutting down the Senate, the Republicans hope the voters will punish the Democrats for coming up empty handed, yet if the country truly wants to move ahead with the Democratic agenda, Americans should not take out their wrath on the Democratic incumbents.

Making Congress live up to its promise.

Americans need to send reinforcements by electing more democrats, conceivably giving them a filibuster-proof super-majority .

A filibuster-proof super-majority? It sounds like an unrealistic pipe dream.

The Senate is renewed in thirds every two years. 35 seats are up for election in 2008, and the Democrats would have to pick up nine to do this. If the Democrats can pick up six or seven seats, Republicans will find it increasingly difficult to maintain the discipline necessary to maintain a lengthy filibuster.

Net Money on hand
Senate Campaigns DSCC$17M NRSC$7M
Congressional Campaigns DCCC$19M NRCC-$2M
Presidential Campaigns Clinton$48M Giuliani$16M
Obama$35M Thompson$6M
Edwards$12M Paul$5M
Richardson$6M Thompson$1.7M
Dodd$4M Huckabee$0.6M
Biden$1.8M Brownback$0.1M
Kucinich$0.3M Romney-$8M
Note: The NRCC has $2M in the bank but debt of $4M
while Mitt Romney lent $17M to his campaign from his
own personal fortune.

Normally, gaining this many seats would be nearly impossible, but coming on the heels of the 2004 election, anything seems possible. In fact, the big political contributors are putting their money on the Democrats, thus reversing the historic pattern of Republicans receiving the lion's share of campaign contributions.

Moreover, the electoral map is in the Democrats favor. Keep in mind when this group of Senators was originally elected in 2002 and how popular George W. Bush was at the time. He was still basking in the glory of 9/11 and was in the process of convincing the country that Iraq was hiding Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Democrats failed miserably at the polls. As a result, the Republicans must defend 23 of the seats up for election while the Democrats need only defend 12 seats.

Mary Landrieu (D-LA)


The only Democratic seats in serious trouble are Mary Landrieu's seat in Louisiana and Tim Johnson's seat in South Dakota.

In 2002, Mary Landrieu won in a run-off election with fifty-two percent of the vote. Since then many Democrats have left the state as a result of Hurricane Katrina. However, Bush’s handling of Katrina and the history of Senator David Vitter (R-LA) frequenting prostitutes will put a damper on the GOP chances there.

South Dakota

According to Prof. Andrew S. Tanenbaum, "Tim Johnson is one of the two most endangered Democratic senators. He got just 50% of the vote in 2002 against John Thune, who ran again in 2004 and beat Tom Daschle. Furthermore, South Dakota is a heavily Republican state. Despite his narrow win in 2002, Johnson has a +46% net approval rating, so the people of South Dakota like the way he is doing his job. Unfortunately, Johnson suffered a cerebral hemorrhage Dec. 13, 2006. He was operated on immediately and is now recovering. All signs show that he intends to run for reelection in 2008. While he is in no condition to campaign now, a group of his (Democratic) friends in the Senate have begun holding fundraisers for him, so when he is ready to hit the campaign trail, he will have plenty of money. All this puts potential Republican candidates in a bind. Actively campaigning against a very popular senator who had a stroke makes them look mean. If Gov. Mike Rounds runs, it will be a real horse race; if Rounds declines, Johnson will be reelected as the GOP bench is thin here."

Susan Collins (R-ME) Tom Allen (D-ME)

Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Virginia

Meanwhile, the latest SurveyUSA poll shows that Democrats are leading or tied with the Republicans in the races to capture Republican seats in Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Virginia.


Republican Senator Susan Collins' seat in Maine will be competitive as she reneges on her promise to serve only two terms. The bookies in London set almost three to two odds in favor of Congressman Tom Allen (D-ME) defeating her as he already represents half of the state.

Percentage Probability of Democratic Victory in 2008 Senate Races. [Source: Gambling website intrade.com.]
Prob. 95 95 95 93 92 92 92 91 90 80 77 75 63 58 53 51 45 30 27 20 16 15 12 10 10* 9 9 9 8* 8 8 5 5 5 5 *
Note: States are arranged from likely Democratic victories on the left to likely Republican victories on the right. Red and blue indicate states currently held by the Republicans and Democrats respectively.
* - In addition to the 33 regular elections, there is are special elections for the other seat from Wyoming to replace Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY) who was hospitalized shortly before being reelected in 2006 and died of Leukemia on June 4, 2007, and for the other seat from Mississippi to replace Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) who recently resigned. Odds have not yet been set for the new race in Mississippi.
Bill Richardson (D-NM)

New Mexico

If New Mexico's Governor Bill Richardson does poorly in his presidential campaign on Super Tuesday, he may switch to "plan B", running for the Senate race where he would be a heavy favorite. However, he would have to move quickly since the deadline is February 12. Due to term limits, he will out of a job if he does not!

Gordon Smith (R-OR) Jeff Merkley (D-OR)


Oregon’s Republican Senator Gordon Smith is part of an endangered species: Moderate Republicans. However, Oregon is a consistently blue state, and supporting State House Speaker Jeff Merkley will be a priority for the DSCC.

The remaining Republican states are better defended, but even there Democrats have opportunities.

Ted Stevens (R-AK)


Senator Ted Stevens is running for reelection despite having his home raided by the FBI as part of a corruption probe. He will be 91 years old by the end of his next term, and he has made Alaska look ridiculous with his description of the internet as a "bunch of tubes", and with his "bridge to nowhere" (a $320,000,000 project designed to save the 8,900 residents of tiny Ketchikan the $6 ferry ride to their town’s airstrip.)


Republican Whip and former Majority Leader Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) recently announced his plans to resign from the Senate. By resigning before the end of the year, the new law requiring Senators to wait two years before lobbying will not applying to him, and Senator Lott will only have to wait one year. Meanwhile, Trent Lott's position puts another Red seat into play at the worse time for the Republicans. According to Prof. Andrew S. Tanenbaum, "Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS) will soon name Lott's replacement, and that person will have to stand for relection to the remainder of Lott's term in 2008. Speculation is that Rep. Chip Pickering (R-MS) is a likely choice. While Mississippi is heavily Republican, it is not a lost cause for the Democrats. The Congressional delegation is split 50-50 and the Democrats control both houses of the state legislature. If former governor Ronnie Musgrove (D-MS) runs, he might be able to put up a good fight."


Even Idaho might be in play if Senator Larry Craig tries to maintain his seat despite having been arrested in June for "disorderly behavior" for encroaching on a neighboring stall in the men’s room at the Minneapolis airport.

Bathroom at Minneapolis airport where Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) was arrested.

The irony of it all

How ironic would it be if the party of "family values" lost its power to obstruct the Senate because of Vitter frequenting a house of prostitution and Craig conducting himself improperly in an airport bathroom?

In the end, the best chance for the Democrats to solidify their control of the House and the Senate would be to direct their financial support to promising candidates in "red" states, and above all to nominate a Presidential contender who will win not through some Electoral College calculus in the so-called battleground states, but who will truly inspire widespread support. Such a candidate making inroads into "red states" would elect new Democratic Senators on his coattails, and bring an end to our dysfunctional Senate.

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