29 April 2009

60? Careful, Icarus

Arlen Specter has changed parties. Why the big fuss over one septuagenarian white dude from Pennsylvania? Because with 60 votes the Democrats can override a filibuster in the U.S. Senate, and thus bring to vote pretty much anything they want. Right now, they can't, and Democrats being Democrats they don't have the spine to bring things to the Senate floor that the Republicans are even threatening to filibuster, which is nearly everything.

I'm not a big Specter fan - Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, anyone? - but it's a crucial vote at a crucial time. It would have been tough to pick up two to three more Senate seats in 2010, the most likely being New Hampshire and Florida, which tells you something, so if Franken is seated and Lieberman holds to caucusing with the Dems, there's your super majority, there's your enacting of a lot of President Obama's ambitious agenda, there's your replacement of one, or two, or three Supreme Court justices. (And, by the way, do we really need to have FIVE of the nine Supreme Court justices being Catholic? Right now, it's Alito, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Roberts, for 56%! The country is only 24% Catholic, according to Pew.)

But here's the thing to keep in mind, that Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) pointed out in a (slightly diffuse and rambly) Op-Ed piece in the NY Times: it wasn't long ago - 1998 - that the Republicans were scarily close to a Senate majority of 60. They "over-reached," and they are now in the political wilderness. From Senator Snowe:

To the contrary, we overreached in interpreting the results of the presidential election of 2004 as a mandate for the party. This resulted in the disastrous elections of 2006 and 2008, which combined for a total loss of 51 Republicans in the House and 13 in the Senate — with a corresponding shift of the Congressional majority and the White House to the Democrats.

Obama and his crew aren't the venal, vicious Rove and Cheney and Bush, but let's face it, Harry Reid is no Lyndon Johnson or George Mitchell and Nancy Pelosi is no Sam Rayburn or Tip O'Neill.

The lessons from the Republicans are clear, and giving in to hubris will be a temptation. It seems to me, however, that if Obama can lead Democrats in Congress and the Party as a whole through his legislative agenda of pragmatic progressivism, he'll be able to dramatically alter the direction of the nation for the next generation. Infrastructure, clean air, urban schools that graduate more than half of their black kids, an energy policy that doesn't involve expending blood and treasure in the Middle East, and on and on, all become possible. So, welcome Senator Specter!

But about that next Supreme Court vacancy, maybe you could sit that one out?

1 comment:

CFox said...

Ah, and don't forget Bayh's group, the Conservadems, which Specter would join if he were into joining (he's not). They are interested in blocking all of that cool legislation you mention, and generally making the 59/60 seats the Dems have less valuable. I think they will appease the Repubs, somewhat, however. But I'm also wondering how the R's will have to change to continue to be a force to reckon with in this country. I believe in many parties, not one, not two, but I also think that a minority that does not need any kind of protection (hello, religious right!) should not have an outsized voice in crafting legislation.