The State of the Filibuster

By all accounts, the 2004 election cycle was a disaster for Senate Democrats, who lost four seats to their Republican counterparts. But they cannot give up now—it could get worse.

When Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican whip, was asked by The New York Times about the Republicans’ 55-44 advantage, he said that “Fifty-five is better than fifty-one, but it’s not sixty.” What he is saying is that the Democrats still have one crucial check on the Republicans: the filibuster, which allows 40 senators to block a vote indefinitely. Thus, Republicans will be able to pass moderately conservative legislation and put moderately conservative judges on the bench, but radical conservatism will likely continue to be stayed by the threat of the Democratic filibuster. But as the Democrats only hold 44 seats, their hold on the filibuster is tenuous.

The real issue, however, is not whether Democrats will maintain their power to filibuster during the next two years. More important is the midterm elections in 2006, where the Republicans could conceivably achieve the sixty-vote majority necessary for a filibuster-proof Senate.

This is a very scary prospect indeed. A filibuster-proof Senate would be devastating not only for the Democratic Party but also for our governmental system. It would mark the obsolescence of what has emerged as a key part of the system of checks and balances that ensure a path of moderation, and clear the path for Republican domination of government policy.

And, with total control of our government, Republican control would mean more than just a conservative agenda for the next few years. The Republicans would be able to make broad and far-reaching changes that would last long into the future. Like a Republican New Deal, conservative legislation passed by a Republican Senate free from the threat of filibuster could permanently and profoundly alter our nation’s character for years to come. From conservative Supreme and District Court judges to conservative tax policy, little is out of the question with an unrestrained, Republican-dominated Senate.


The prospect of Republican domination is particularly unsettling because the country is by no means dominated by Republicans. President Bush won the popular vote by just three percent, and exit polls showed an even split between the parties.

Furthermore, the loss of the Democratic filibuster would make the Democratic Party, and our two party system, nearly irrelevant. The Democrats would have no political clout—the Republicans could call all the shots themselves and the Democrats would be mere pundits criticizing Republican policy with the hope that they might gain seats next election cycle. I don’t think that anyone would say that such an uncritical, one-sided debate would be healthy for our democracy.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, and for our political system, their “filibuster minority” is far from safe—2006 could be a blockbuster year for the Republicans. Thirty-three seats are up for reelection, and a large fraction of the seats that will likely be hotly contested are currently in Democratic hands.

Six Democratic senators won by less than 5 percent last election cycle and will likely face tough battles for reelection in 2006. Two of these senators, Bill Nelson of Florida and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, face reelection in states won by Bush in the election. These two will be the most vulnerable, as Florida just elected a Republican for its other Senate seat and Nebraska went to Bush in a landslide.

Also vulnerable are Senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Mark Dayton of Minnesota and Jon Corzine of New Jersey, all of whom are in blue states, but states that were barely blue in the election. Other Democratic senators who won fairly easily last election cycle are facing reelection in states that have been red states or swing states in the past two elections. These include Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico. A good number of these ten senators will likely find their seats at risk, especially if the Republicans field moderate candidates who can undercut the incumbents on trademark Democratic issues.

On the other hand, the Republicans look quite safe in 2006 with two major exceptions: Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a blue state, and Conrad Burns of Montana, from a state which Bush carried easily, but which also just elected a new, Democrat governor. Beyond that, only two other Republicans are up for reelection in blue states.

Given their vulnerability in two years, it is crucial that Democrats not wilt after the devastating events of the 2004 election. They must stay on the offensive and carry the intense energy with which they supported John Kerry into the midterm Senate election because otherwise they could easily lose more seats. Quite simply, vigilance, vigor and enthusiasm on the part of the Democrats, especially in the states where seats are at risk, are crucial because four more years of Bush is nothing compared to what could come in 2006: total irrelevance.

Adam M. Guren ’08, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.

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