Democrats will enhance power by reaching 60 Senate seats

November 1, 2008 By    

In the past month, huge financial numbers have been thrust at Americans in ways we have never seen: a $700 billion financial rescue package, a possible trillion-dollar deficit and another possible $250-$300 billion stimulus package. But one of the most important numbers is one of the smallest numbers – the number nine.

 Lisa Bontempo
Lisa Bontempo

Nine is important because it is the number of seats that gives Democrats a filibuster-proof Senate. Before the November elections, the Senate was made up of 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats and two Independents (Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont), who caucused with the Democrats.

Filibuster in history

When we think of filibuster, we often have the image of Jimmy Stewart’s role in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” speaking at length (filibustering) to win the day for his cause, or maybe we think of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond commanding the Senate floor in defense of states’ rights and opposed to civil-rights legislation.

Senators use the filibuster to prolong debates, which has the effect of preventing a vote. When a senator filibusters, he or she is effectively holding the chamber hostage until other conditions are met that would stop the filibuster. Needless to say, senators of the opposing party often view this as obstructionist.

In 1917, the Senate changed its rules to allow a two-thirds vote to end a filibuster. In 1975, a Democratic-controlled Senate changed the rule to a three-fifths vote, or 60 votes, to end a filibuster and allow legislation to come for a final vote. (A lower number is required for legislation changing Senate rules.) The action of bringing a debate to a close is called a cloture vote and amounts to an administrative filibuster. What this means in practical terms is that in order to bring a bill to a final vote in the U.S. Senate, the legislation must have 60 votes of support.

Numbers on the rise

The 110th Congress’ use of cloture is at an all-time high. Democrats have accused Republicans of obstruction through more than 70 filibusters in this Congress alone. Republicans charge that the numbers are actually far fewer and that Democrats have used the filibuster and cloture vote as tools to block minority amendments on bills and cut off needed debate prematurely.

No matter how the filibuster count is defined and by whom, the fact is that the greatly increased use of this procedure is the reality of a sharply divided Senate where senators wield it as one of the sharpest tools in their procedural toolbox.

The use of the administrative filibuster is not likely to change unless the Senate changes its rules. What may change is whether Democrats gain enough seats in the election to reach 60 seats in the Senate.

So if, as you read this, Democrats have won nine additional seats, the use of the administrative filibuster will be dramatically altered. If Democrats have 60 seats, then they will have greatly enhanced their power. No longer will Republicans be able to stall or stop a final vote on legislation by simply denying Democrats any votes when legislation comes up for a cloture vote.

However, do not assume that just because Democrats have 60 votes that they will be able to run roughshod over Republicans. Many Senate votes don’t break down on pure party lines, and as long as Sen. Lieberman is part of the Democratic caucus he cannot be counted on as a consistent supporter of caucus positions.

But make no mistake, if Nov. 5 finds Democrats in control of 60 seats in the Senate, power as we have known it for a long time will have shifted dramatically.

Lisa Bontempo was a longtime energy lobbyist, including 13 years with NPGA. She remains involved in national politics, and can be reached at

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