The Senate's new math

Politics | The U.S. Senate will become a much more conservative place next year, but Democrats still hold enough seats to cause trouble for the White House

Issue: "Yasser Arafat: In memoriam," Nov. 20, 2004

From 0 to 84 in the blink of an eye. That's what will happen to the conservative ratings of one Senate seat from North Carolina when Richard Burr is sworn in to replace John Edwards in January of 2005. Mr. Edwards, the Democrats' former vice presidential candidate, managed to score a perfect 0 on the 2004 scorecard published by the Christian Coalition. That means he voted against a family-values position on the six issues-from abortion to abstinence to judicial nominations-deemed most important by the Coalition this year.

His successor, on the other hand, voted "right" 84 percent of the time on the most important family-values issues to come up in the House of Representatives. Transferring those conservative instincts to the Senate will result in the kind of left-to-right shift that might happen once a decade-except that this year it's happening again and again.

In North Carolina, South Carolina, and South Dakota, incoming GOP senators rate 60 to 80 points higher on various conservative scorecards than the incumbents they are replacing. (A similar shift in political philosophy will also be seen in Florida, although Sen.-elect Mel Martinez lacks a congressional record to make exact scoring possible.) In Georgia, the American Conservative Union rates Johnny Isakson 20 points higher than his predecessor, Zell Miller, the Senate's most conservative Democrat. And in Louisiana, David Vitter manages to score almost twice as high as outgoing Sen. John Breaux, another leading Democratic moderate.

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That sort of ideological whiplash has left even longtime conservative activists somewhat dumbfounded. "The Senate's gone back and forth from Republican to Democratic control several times since 1980," says Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union. "But I don't know that there's ever been such a dramatic ideological swing in one election."

Mr. Lessner says it's not just the number of incoming Republicans that's important, but the depth of their conservative beliefs. "The Senate is a kind of hoary old institution run like a good old boys' club. But these guys are all committed, ideological conservatives, and I don't think they'll be content being passive. . . . President Bush ran on a clear agenda for his second term, [and] these new guys will expect to see some action on those items."

For President Bush, the Senate's conservative influx could make the difference on controversial issues such as tort reform, Social Security privatization, and tax overhaul. Although the GOP's 55-44 advantage will still require some bipartisan cooperation, experts predict that chastened Democrats will now be more likely to at least negotiate, rather than simply obstruct the president's agenda.

"I think the Democrats are going to have to sue for peace," says William Connelly, a politics professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. "They've been arguing since Election Day that the onus is on the president to reach out across the aisle, but compromise is a two-way street . . . and you could argue that the minority party needs compromise more than the majority party."

Mr. Connelly, who is writing a book on confrontation and compromise in the U.S. Congress, believes "the Democrats simply can't afford to play the politics of opposition"-a lesson they may have learned from the political demise of their erstwhile leader. "Tom Daschle was a master of confrontation," he notes. "Daschle could smile while he was sticking a knife in you. He lost in part because of the way he played the politics of confrontation. Harry Reid [Mr. Daschle's likely successor as minority leader] is nowhere near as personally inclined to be that confrontational. He's more moderate, more of a tactician."

Even with Mr. Reid in charge, however, almost no one expects the Democrats to roll over and play dead. The rules of the upper chamber simply make it too easy to hold up controversial bills by talking them to death.

"I think they'll continue to filibuster," says John J. Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. Even with a net pickup of four seats, the GOP will still be five votes short of the 60-vote "supermajority" needed to break a filibuster and force a vote by the full chamber.

"It's a heck of a lot better to have 55 than 51," Mr. Pitney admits, "but you don't have as many moderate Democrats as before. It was the moderates who were the hope for breaking a filibuster, and many of them are gone now-Zell Miller, Fritz Hollings, John Breaux. It's not as helpful to the Republicans as if the seats they were gaining came from people like Clinton and Kennedy."


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