Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Senatorial Math

Through a very circuitous route of free association, this piece at the Economist (and, please, do read the comments behind the link to the Times-Picayune) got me thinking: is there really anything that can be done in the U.S. Senate these days?

Just look at the math. Right now there are 51 members of the senate Democratic caucus. One of these member is Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, who is currently recovering from a brain hemorrhage and has not gotten to the floor of the Senate during his rehab. That essentially makes the caucus 50 members. The GOP, on the other hand, holds the remaining 49 seats.

Then there are the members of the Senate running for President: Sens Clinton, Obama, Dodd, and Biden. Clearly they will have other things on their minds and probably won't be making it to some of the floor votes, committee meetings, legislative strategy jam sessions, etc. So now the Dems are really playing with only 46 members operating at full strength.

The same problem also has befallen the Republicans, but to a lesser extent. Sens. McCain and Brownback are currently on the campaign trail, thus bringing the GOP's numbers down to 47.

And since we're talking about the '08 Election, let's thrown in the 1/3 of the Senate that has essentially already begun running for re-election: 21 Republicans will see their terms expire while only 12 Dems are in the same boat. Of these 33 Larry Sabato considered seven to be competitive in February -- two (D)s (LA and SD), four (R)s (ME, MN, NH, OR), and one open (R) in CO.

(Since the retiring Senator from Colorado, Wayne Allard, won't have to worry about fund-raising and campaigning, we can assume he'll have plenty of time to spend in DC otherwise performing the duties of his office while he's not out looking for a lobbying gig and forget about him all together.)

So now we have a GOP caucus, free from distraction, that numbers 43 and a Dem caucus of 44. Some of the GOP occupiers of safe seat might have to go back home periodically to do some hand-holding with the voters -- either due to on-going corruption inquiries, as in the case of Ted Stevens, for example; or if his seat suddenly becomes very competitive, as may happen to John Warner if he doesn't retire.

Clearly, for any massively important vote, anyone mentioned above will drop what they're doing and head back to DC to do the very least that is expected of them by their constituents (i.e. vote on the floor), but chances are likely that there will be a good chunk of the Senate that will not have their hearts in the legislative game between now and November of next year.

Further complicating the matter, let's say everyone who Sabato thinks may retire actually does, a "best" case scenario which would mean that the upcoming retirees will be able to devote all of their attention to their legislative duties. Now we'd still have 11 Republicans spending a good deal of time trying to crush their token opposition and 9 Dems doing likewise. That leaves us with only an astonishing 32 full-time Republican Senators and 35 Democrats.

Oddly enough, the sum of those two numbers is 67, which is exactly how many "full-time" legislators in the Senators there should be during even numbered years (and particularly those years that don't feature a presidential election), but even during those most optimum of election cycles when this is the case there are still rarely as many as ten competitive seats featuring an incumbent. So instead of having at least 90 Senators to discharge their duties as legislators -- even in the "part-time" capacity of one running against merely nominal competition -- the country could have less than 70 for the next 16 months or so.

That's not good. 60 votes are needed to enforce cloture and 67 to override a Presidential veto. That means that on an appropriations bill that might have no significance to either a Presidential or Senatorial race next year, but huge significance to those it might actually help -- a bill that provides funds to a community health clinic in North Dakota, for example -- a vast majority, if not all, of the available Senators (or at least those not out campaigning) would have to approve. With the make-up of the Senate as ideologically divided as it is now, that's not likely going to happen.

So unless there's an Iraq bill that will likely get summarily vetoed or the nation has to sit through another Terry Shiavo redux, I wouldn't expect to see much get done in the sent until 2009.

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