Features

The Senate's new math

"The Senate's new math" Continued...

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

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."

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