The Democrats not-so-super Senate majority
07/09/2009 - 09:48
James Besser

If I was Rabbi David Saperstein (and that's not likely; who has that much energy?), I'd be pleased as punch that Al Franken now has “Sen.” and “D-Minn.)  stuck on his name.  But I wouldn't be popping any champagne corks; the 60 vote super majority the Democrats gained in theory when Franken was finally sworn in this week will  be hard to mobilize in practice.

That's the reality progressive groups like Saperstein's Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a slew of other Jewish organizations will face now that Senate Democrats have enough votes to bust GOP Senate filibusters – at least on paper.

If you want reasons, start with what many observers consider weak Senate Democratic leadership.  Opinions about Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) vary, but on this there is virtual unanimity: he's no LBJ.  In the 1950s, then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson enforced party discipline with a cat-o-nine-tales.

The whole idea of party discipline seems like a relic,  at least for an increasingly diverse Democratic party – in contrast to a Republican faction that is far more unified, far more willing to march in lockstep with party leadership.   There are simply too many Democrats who will stray from the reservation on key issues, knowing that party leaders are unlikely to  punish them.

Today, interest groups, public opinion surveys and access to the 24/7 electronic media count for a lot more than party enforcers.

As the Washington Post points out in a good story on the issue today  , many Democrats from relatively conservative districts aren't eager to be painted as TOO Democratic, and two leading Democratic senators – Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd – are fighting serious illnesses and have been absent from many key votes.

Sure, reaching 60 will make a difference to a Democratic leadership that faces huge obstacles to enacting an ambitious legislative program.  It'll probably make a big and immediate difference on judicial nominations, starting with the pending nomination of  New York federal appeals court Judge Sonia Sotomayor  to the Supreme Court.

 But stopping Republican filibusters on key legislation still won't be a slam dunk; passing big-ticket legislation  will  require stronger leadership from Reid and effective outreach work from the Obama White House. It will also  probably require more compromise than party progressives want.

And breaking the legislative logjam will also require some Republicans to say more than “no” if they want to have anything to bring to voters in next year's congressional midterm elections.
 

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