Sunday, Oct. 26, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Outside the glare of the presidential election, the two political parties have begun waging an unprecedented campaign to capture — or prevent — a U.S. Senate majority large enough for Democrats to pursue their national agenda despite Republican opposition.
Never in American political history has the argument been made as it is now: Voters in states across the country are being told in fundraising pitches, and in some places television ads, that a 60-seat majority would give Democrats the ability to overcome Republican filibusters. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to halt a filibuster, or cut off debate and bring legislation to a vote, in the 100-seat chamber.
With the House certain to remain in Democratic control and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama enjoying a comfortable lead in the presidential race, Republican filibusters could stand as the only barrier to Democratic domination of Washington in ways unseen in 30 years.
The phenomenon has largely bypassed Nevada because neither of its senators, Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, and Republican John Ensign, is up for election this year.
But in battleground races across the country where nine Senate seats would make the difference, the prospect of a filibuster-proof Senate has almost overnight begun to fill the electoral conversation.
Jennifer Duffy, whose analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report in Washington, said every other query to her office has now turned to the Senate supermajority.
“I just did something for the BBC on 60 — even the Brits care,” Duffy said.
A filibuster-proof Senate was little more than wishful daydreams among Democratic activists, and the very distant fear of Republicans, as this campaign season began. But a series of cascading events has left Republican senators more vulnerable in once safe states such as Mississippi and Georgia.
In recent weeks, as the nation’s economy worsened, polls started showing as many as nine Republican-held Senate seats are now jeopardized. Even the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is threatened.
The stakes are huge for the policy direction of the country, as Democrats pursue vast changes in taxes, energy, health care and foreign policy in a potentially unencumbered way.
“The big issue on everyone’s mind is: Are Democrats going to get to 60?” said Ensign, who is in charge of Republican efforts to elect senators.
The Democrats swept to power in 2007, taking control of both houses in the 2006 elections. But unlike the House, where a simple majority rules, the Senate has a 60-vote threshold.
With Democrats clinging to a 51-49 advantage, the Senate became the place where signature legislation went to die. Republican stalling by filibuster became the norm. A record 92 filibusters were conducted this session of Congress.
Breaking through that impasse would give Democrats sweeping power to move forward with the plans Obama has outlined on the campaign trail and do so in ways unseen in Washington in a generation.
No party has had a filibuster-proof majority since 1977. Republicans failed to reach the magic 60 even after the Republican landslides with Ronald Reagan in 1980 — which brought 12 new Republican senators — and the conservative revolution launched by Newt Gingrich in 1994 that gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress.
The Senate barrier has contributed to the sense in recent decades that Washington simply can’t get anything done.
That could now change. Reid wrote in a fundraising e-mail recently that the turn of events is unprecedented.
“Everything Democrats believe in and fight for is in reach,” Reid wrote. “We have a breathtaking opportunity to change America ... We stand at the very brink of electing Barack Obama president and giving him a filibuster-proof majority.”
“The results will be stunning,” Reid wrote.
A new TV ad in Minnesota for comedian Al Franken says his race to unseat Republican Sen. Norm Coleman could make or break the Democratic agenda.
“It’s going to take a new president and 60 senators willing to stand up for change,” says Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Al Franken could very well be that 60th vote.”
The prospect sends tremors through Republican circles.
Republicans warn of a single-party dominating Washington with unfettered power, describing a liberal policy agenda that could become law under a triumvirate of Obama, Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
Yet Republicans have been hesitant to trumpet the threat beyond speeches to supporters for fear of appearing to abandon their own presidential candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Last week, though, Ensign’s committee ratcheted up the anti-60 rhetoric.
The first TV ad broaching the subject debuted in North Carolina, where Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the wife of Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader and presidential nominee, is in a race for her political life against state Senator Kay Hagan.
“These liberals want complete control of government,” the ad announcer says. “All branches of government — no checks and balances, no debate, no independence.”
As the image of Hagan appears on screen the announcer says, “If she wins, they get a blank check.”
Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said using the filibuster this way is unparalleled in U.S. politics.
Never before has the filibuster appeared in ads because never has it played a role to the extent Republicans have used it during the past two years.
The notion of breaking a filibuster is a 20th century development. In earlier times, the arcane rules of the Senate allowed a single senator or a small team of them to scuttle legislation by taking the floor to speak and refusing to stop, grinding the body to halt for days on end until they got their way.
President Wilson, himself a scholar, sought a way to overcome filibusters in 1917 when a few war-skeptical senators stalled his request to arm merchant ships on the eve of World War I.
The Senate established a two-thirds threshold — 67 votes — to overpower the filibuster. By the 1970s, after the Civil Rights battles, the threshold was lowered to 60.
In many ways, today’s narrowly divided Senate is not a working majority for Democrats, said Donald A. Ritchie, the associate Senate historian. At 51 seats to 49, the Senate in essence has two minority parties, and no majority.
Democrats learned the hard way in 2007 that the 60-vote requirement was not widely understood outside Washington. Voters became frustrated when Reid could not manage to win votes to withdraw troops from the war in Iraq, even though multiple bills to do so had easily passed the House.
Still, as intoxicating as it is for Democrats to consider 60 senators on their side, it may not lead to omnipotence.
The Senate is a personality-driven place, as Reid likes to say, and senators peel off in different directions on different issues.
“My line is, 60 seats doesn’t mean 60 votes,” said Duffy, the analyst at Cook.
To get to 60 means knocking off vulnerable Republicans such as Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, Sen. John Sununu in New Hampshire and Coleman in Minnesota, who have sometimes crossed party lines to vote with Democrats.
Plus some Democratic candidates, including former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in Mississippi, tend toward the more conservative end of the Democratic spectrum, and may not be reliable votes on some issues.
And most scenarios that push Democrats to 60 include Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the independent Democrat, who has riled his colleagues with support for McCain.
Ornstein wrote in an opinion piece last week that the new Democratic majority would include senators “who are not likely to fit a cookie-cutter group reflexively going along in unison to enact a program of sweeping liberal changes.”
But hitting 60 would have “psychological weight,” as Duffy put it, making it a powerful force these final days on the campaign trail.