Republicans gnashed their teeth in frustration as the national tide of GOP resurgence washed up against the massive Democratic fortresses in Nevada, Washington state, Colorado and California. When they neither toppled nor faltered, most conservatives resigned themselves to a divided Congress with the Republican House and the Democratic Senate forever at war.
Not so. The vote on the extension of the Bush tax cuts reveals that the Republican Party has, in fact, gained effective control of the U.S. Senate. We are facing the same situation Ronald Reagan confronted in 1980 when his revolution brought him control of the Senate, but left the House under the nominal reign of Tip O’Neill and the Democrats. But, in fact, as the new president soon discovered, the House Democratic majority was subservient to the tide that had swept the Senate. Terrified by the Republican sweep, the Democrats were unable to muster a coherent opposition in the chamber they controlled. So it will be in 2011.
The Democrats will keep the corner offices in the Russell, Dirksen and Hart Senate office buildings and retain their committee chairmanships, but their ability to summon a majority to sustain their president on crucial votes is gone. The defection of Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut indicates that the 53-47 Democratic tilt of the Senate is more apparent than real.
Webb, Nelson, Manchin and Lieberman are all up for reelection in 2012. Each is very good at reading the handwriting on the wall left by Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), Bob ?Bennett (R-Utah) and Russ Feingold ?(D-Wis.) on their way out the door. It reads: “The conservatives are coming!”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could well afford to lose four votes while he controlled the Senate 58-42, but he can ill afford four defections when his margin is only three. And Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) — all from red states and all facing close reelection battles — cannot be far behind these four in considering periodic abandonment of the ship on key votes. Only the likelihood of retirement saves Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) from a similar fate. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), also vulnerable in 2012, probably think they can ride out the tide in their more Democratic states. (And in any event, Brown, Stabenow and Menendez are too liberal to notice what has just happened.)
So, on key votes, the endangered Democratic senators are likely to dodge the bullets coming from the House and defect from Reid’s majority. Why should they take the rap for blocking conservative legislation when they have a presidential veto backing them up at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue? “Let the president take the rap; why should I have to?” they will ask as they lend their assent to House-passed bills. The inability of President Obama to reelect those who supported him hardly encourages others to risk their careers doing so.
Indeed, Reid can only regain his functioning majority if more Democrats choose to retire rather than face the music in 2012. If Kohl, Bingaman, Webb and Ben Nelson decide to retire after this term, the Democrats could have enough lame ducks to keep control of the Senate floor for one more cycle — hardly a pleasing prospect for their party.
The result of the functional Republican control of the Senate is that the forum for decision making in a divided Washington will not be the conference committee, but rather White House negotiations between the two political parties.
It remains to be seen whether the endangered Democrats can save their Senate seats from the likely GOP tide of 2012 by switching in time to pretend to be moderates. What is clear is that they are not going to block the Republican bills coming over from the House.
The Democrats will still control the committees in the Senate, but the Republicans will own the floor.