Senate Membership Roller Coaster

The Magic Number for Cloture Ending Senate Filibusters

The Magic Number for Cloture Ending Senate Filibusters

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on February 3, 2009, at

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On the way to sixty — the twists and turns on the way to the Senate.

Leading up to the Presidential election in November 2008, Senate watchers were wondering how close the Democrats would get to the magic number of 60. It takes sixty Senators, under cloture rules, to cut off debate, and proceed to a vote, even where a simple majority of Senators favor passage. There have been arguments over the validity of the filibuster rule itself (essentially a minority party bargaining chip), but it has withstood challenge in the Senate for more than a century. With no filibuster rule in the House and significant Democratic majority expected, the Senate numbers represented the only Republican check on free reigning democratic legislative authority until the 2010 congressional elections.

And so, as the Democrats went into the election with assurances of picking up seats under the sway of Obama’s popularity, Bush’s dismal ratings, looming economic meltdown, and 23 Republican incumbents facing re-election, all eyes were on the numbers.

Essentially, the Democrats needed 9 to reach sixty (two Senate independents side generally with the 49 Democrats). And they got six. Six, that is, on November 4. But that left Alaska, where the longest serving Republican, Ted Stevens, ahead in the count, had been indicted on corruption charges and was being asked by his own party to resign. And Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who only ended up ahead by 230 votes, triggering an automatic recount and analysis that the types of voting machines and propensity for errors, which are corrected by the recount, gave the Democrat Al Franken real hope.

The other Senate changes, first and foremost, Barack Obama’s Illinois Senate seat, and Joe Biden’s Delaware seat, would not change the Senate make-up because Democratic governors of Illinois and Delaware would appoint Democratic replacements. (Though no one could have predicted that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich would be caught on tape seemingly trying to exchange the appointment for the greatest personal gain, would be indicted, impeached, and removed from office, soon after the seat was filled).

Further change in the post-election Senate make-up came from the appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton, replaced finally by Democratic State Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Meanwhile, on November 18, the final count in the close Alaska election reversed Ted Steven’s early lead and put Anchorage Mayor, Mark Begich, in the Senate as Democrat 58.

After further wrangling about erroneously uncounted absentee ballots in Minnesota, ballot challenges and final recount tallies were in, the Minnesota Canvassing board declared comedian Al Franken the victor over Norm (not laughing) Coleman. Republican Coleman has challenged the final tally of 225 votes in Franken’s favor, but Democrat Franken is on his way to being Senate Democrat number 59.

And so it would have remained, except that President Barack Obama’s Commerce Secretary nominee, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, withdrew from consideration in the face of an investigation, and Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire will be nominated instead.

The political dynamic is momentous. On the one hand, Sen. Gregg serves in a state with a Democratic Governor, John Lynch, who would ordinarily choose a Democratic replacement. This would represent the magic 60 in the Senate. Republicans have said that Gregg should not take the position in this situation.

On the other hand, the Commerce position is an important one and one which a Republican advocating free market principles will find especially significant during the economic downturn. There is already talk of protectionism creeping into stimulus legislation and the Commerce Secretary would likely take the lead in advocating against protectionism at home and abroad.

And so, like the best of roller coasters, with unanticipated twists and turns, we have to wait for one more appointment to finally determine the make-up of the 2009 Senate. New Hampshire Governor Lynch is indicating that his appointment will not change the Senate’s party politics.”I will name a replacement who will put the people of New Hampshire first and represent New Hampshire effectively in the U.S. Senate.”

To some extent the numbers will be of symbolic significance since the most moderate of the Republican Senators, such as Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are not likely to join a filibuster against the President except in exceptional circumstances. But with talk of bank nationalizations, deficit-fed stimulus and promises of dramatic change in Washington, these are exceptional circumstances.

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