WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are inching close to the magic number of 60, the number of votes that are needed to cut off debate under the chamber's rules.
Victories by Al Franken in the still-undecided Minnesota race and Jim Martin in Georgia's runoff Dec. 2 would give the Democrats a nominal filibuster-proof majority, which neither party has had in 32 years. Democrats now hold 58 seats in the new 100-member Senate, with those two yet to be decided.
While having 60 members would help Democrats overcome procedural hurdles, however, it hardly assures a smooth path for President-elect Barack Obama's initiatives, because Senate Democrats are by no means of one mind on many policy issues.
"There's been too much made about it," Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said of the 60-vote majority. "There's nothing monolithic about the senators in either" party.
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That's one reason that 60 is no guarantee of success. Another is the nature of the Senate; it's a collegial, clubby place in which members succeed by building coalitions around specific legislation, and bipartisan coalitions enhance chances of success.
It's a badge of honor, and good politics, for a liberal senator to pair with a conservative to push legislation. Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have teamed up on children's health care and other issues. Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and John McCain, R-Ariz., who just lost the presidential election, together led an effort to curb big money in politics.
Senators made it clear that if Obama wants to tackle complex issues such as health care and alternative energy, he'll need those Republican moderates, and more, because enacting sweeping change requires broad bipartisan support in order to be viewed as legitimate throughout society.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., boasted that seven Democrats, seven Republicans and one independent touted his Health Americans Act, which would guarantee that every American could afford private health-insurance coverage, in a letter to Obama this week.
Wyden contended that because health-care restructuring will directly affect so many people, it needs broad support, as many as 75 votes, and can't have a partisan hue.
"There's just no way you can change health insurance policies without solid bipartisan support," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "The same goes for energy legislation. It'll never happen without a lot of people from both parties."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said laughingly that her magic number for Democratic control of the Senate was 57, because "we're usually able to pick up a few moderate Republicans, depending on the issue."
Alexander is one of the Republican moderates whom Democrats will woo to form bipartisan majorities. So are Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Maine's senators, as well as Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, George Voinovich of Ohio and Coleman, if he returns next year.
"I suspect there's going to be a lot of pressure on me," said Collins, recalling how members would form bipartisan "gangs" to push pet bills in the past.
"You're going to see lots of gangs next year," she said, chuckling.
Another factor could dilute the power of 60: Senators must answer first to the diverse constituencies that populate every state.
In the current Congress, five Democrats — Arkansas' Mark Pryor, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, Indiana's Evan Bayh, Missouri's Claire McCaskill and Nelson — voted with other Democrats slightly less than the party average.
A handful of others — notably Virginia's Jim Webb, Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln and Delaware's Thomas Carper — are viewed as more moderate than most of their party colleagues. Virginia's Sen.-elect Mark Warner is of the same stripe.
Still, achieving 60 seats could give Democrats one important edge: It's usually easier to impose party discipline on procedural votes, such as those to cut off debate.
"The real impact of 60 is that it will help our ability to get to the underlying issues more quickly," Carper said.
In the 110th Congress, which is drawing to a close, Senate Democrats had a two-seat majority thanks to two independents who joined their caucus. Some 138 motions to cut off debate were offered, all but 12 by Democrats.
Democrats succeeded 58 times and Republicans won three. It was by far the most the procedure has been used since the Senate adopted the "cloture" rule in 1917.
Republicans know that the Democrats' strong majority blunts their chief procedural weapon — the filibuster, or endless debate to block decisive votes — so they could be more motivated to work with Democrats. In addition, some said, Democrats could have their own reasons for seeking Republican friends.
"If they don't seek bipartisan support," Hatch said, "then anything that goes wrong will be attributed to Democrats."
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