Can Dems Get Anything Done With Fewer Than 60 Seats?

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If Martha Coakley doesn't win Ted Kennedy's Senate seat on January 19, the Dems could face this fate uncomfortably soon. Photo: Courtesy of Martha Coakley

Question of the week in Washington: Can the Democrats govern the country with fewer than 60 Senate seats? As you may have noticed, getting a health-care bill through the Senate wasn't exactly child's play with 60. And now that it seems highly likely that this November's elections will leave the party with fifty-something seats — meaning that Democrats can't block a threatened filibuster with a straight party-line vote, plus Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman — where does that leave them?

First, let's talk about pre-November politics. Every cause-oriented lobbyist in the capital, every head of every liberal interest group, every labor leader and gay-rights advocate and environmentalist and all the rest, is now thinking: The salad days are ending. We'd better get our bill passed while we have the 60. It's now or never.

To which the White House is likely to respond: You hold on a minute. The president's instinct this year, and David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel's, will likely be to tack toward the center. That doesn't necessarily mean GOP lite, but it does mean comparatively safe issues: jobs, education, jobs, broadband expansion (the first-ever national broadband strategy is slated to be unveiled in a couple months), jobs, the long-term deficit, and jobs.

Expanded labor rights, repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell," even (maybe especially) climate change ... kinda hard to see how they fit in that picture. Climate-change legislation, for example, just does not have anything close to 60 votes in the current Senate, so foes will have enough sense to know that they can just wait it out. Cue the wails from those on the uncompromising left (FireDogLake bloggers, etc.) already dead-set against what they see as a watered-down health-care bill. And as to next year, assuming the Democrats have 56 or 57 seats: It's not only the idea of big, New Deal–ish legislation that's probably DOA.

Republican obduracy will become far more effective. Consider presidential appointments. The Republicans have blocked more of Barack Obama's appointments, to important executive-branch jobs and to the federal bench, than any other congressional opposition in recent memory. (The timing may have been coincidental, but it was interesting that a report surfaced that seven people whose nominations had been held up by the GOP were being renominated by the White House the day after the news broke of the Byron Dorgan and Chris Dodd retirements.)

So how can the Democrats get things done? There are certain work-arounds available to outmaneuver GOP intransigence. The now-famous reconciliation process, in which legislation that has passed the House can make it through the Senate with only a majority of 51 (not 60), was spurned for health care but will probably be resorted to a few times in the future. However, reconciliation can be employed only in certain situations — in general, on budgetary matters, not social ones.

There's also executive order. This can be a big hammer: Lyndon Johnson started affirmative-action programs with it. But even on a scale smaller than that, lots of domestic policy in lots of areas can be made this way.

But eventually there will be a showdown with Congress. My guess is it won't happen until 2012, when Obama is running again, but it could happen before. And there's opportunity there, but only if he succeeds in staring down the GOP leadership. Bill Clinton went eyeball to eyeball with Newt Gingrich in 1995 over the government shutdown. Clinton salvaged his post-health-care-debacle presidency by beating Gingrich on that one, and because the economy started to zoom right after. So history could repeat itself, to some extent.

But until then, expect things to become even more combative, compromised, and high-stakes. So the left will have to learn to live without a new New Deal. The current 60 might go away much sooner in any case, if Martha Coakley doesn't beat Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special election on January 19 to fill Ted Kennedy's seat on a longer-term basis. That race seems closer than expected.