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.
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."
The battle for Mr. Bush's judicial nominees provides the best example of the Senate's new math. In the past year, both Priscilla Owen and Miguel Estrada failed to gain a straight up-or-down vote because Republicans were unable to muster the 60 votes necessary to break a Democratic filibuster. With the help of four moderate Democrats, Mr. Estrada got the closest to a full vote, garnering 55 votes in favor of breaking the Democratic filibuster. A net gain of four new Republicans might appear to take him to 59, but two of those new GOP senators are merely replacing moderate Democrats who already sided with the president. So the Estrada nomination, if it came up again, would likely stall at 57 votes in favor of cloture-two more than before, but still three short of the magic number.
Still, Republicans are hopeful they can cobble together enough Democratic votes to end the long deadlock on judicial nominees. Their best hope is that senators from some of the Red States carried overwhelmingly by President Bush will take a lesson from Mr. Daschle and decide to vote the will of their conservative constituents rather than that of the Democratic hierarchy. Republican strategists believe the four remaining Southern Democrats may vote to save their careers, along with western Democrats in states like Montana, North Dakota, and Colorado.
The recent rumblings of Sen. Arlen Specter regarding pro-life judges (see p. 23) shows that even with a solid Republican majority, the Bush administration can't always expect smooth sailing for its agenda. Nevertheless, the newly ascendant conservatives believe they can use the Senate's machinery to sideline liberals like Mr. Specter, Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine.
Beginning this month, GOP senators will meet to divvy up committee assignments and budgets for the coming session. With their larger majority, Republicans can now pad their one-seat advantage on most committees by giving themselves a margin of two or even three seats. That may not seem like a huge advantage at first glance, but it is: "Having one additional vote on the Judiciary Committee could mean the difference in bringing a nomination to the floor or seeing it die in committee," says Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation. "If you stack a committee and handpick who gets on it, you pretty much guarantee you can move a bill to the floor."
Conservatives have two options for keeping moderates in line. By expanding committees to give themselves a three-vote majority, Republicans can guarantee that even one moderate crossover won't be enough to prevent a bill from reaching the Senate floor. Alternatively, the leadership could decide to shrink the size of certain committees by declining to fill the seat of a retiring Democrat. On Judiciary, for instance, currently stacked 10-9 in favor of the GOP, Republicans might keep their seats at 10 while shrinking the Democratic side to 8 by refusing to fill the seat of a retiring John Edwards. That would make it harder for disgruntled liberals like Mr. Chaffee to jump to the other party, because Democratic leaders would have fewer plum committee assignments to offer as an inducement.
With Republican liberals de-fanged, President Bush may be able to push through an aggressive legislative agenda-but newly elected conservatives may also have an agenda of their own. Conservatives have long grumbled about the administration's free-spending ways, for instance, and they may now have the clout to do something about it. "The overt fiscal conservatism of incoming freshman senators may result in some fiscal austerity, finally," predicts Mr. Franc.
A WORLD interview with Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma seems to bear that out. Though he's replacing a fellow conservative, Dr. Coburn appears more prepared for confrontation than some of the Republican Old Guard. "I want to use the office to get back to what our Constitution says we should be doing," he says between appointments at his OB/Gyn practice. "Nobody seems to be upset that we spent $600 billion of our kids' money last year, money that we didn't have. Stealing from your kids is not just wrong, it's immoral. That argument has to be made, and it's going to be tough.
"We're not going to move a body that's drifted this far to the left for so long without some consequences. Nobody likes change in Washington."