Can Republicans Remain Relevant in U.S. Senate

As Republican hopes of retaining the White House dim in the face of an increasingly desperate campaign by Senator John McCain, the party faces an even greater threat — becoming irrelevant in Congress, and specifically, in the United States Senate. It all comes down to whether the GOP can retain at least 41 seats in the upper house, The odds are with them, but it’s a far from uncertain result. Reducing their chances is Senator McCain’s campaign  consistent attacks on all incumbents in Washington. The worsening economic crisis only makes electoral matters worse for the GOP.

Today the Senateis narrowly divided: 51 Senators caucus with the Democrats; 49 with the Republicans. Two of those siding with the Democrats are actually independents. Senator Bernie Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist, but throughout his long Congressional career has been considered a Democrat when it comes to electing leadership and committee assignments. The other independent is Senator Lieberman, a life-long Democrat who was defeated in his party primary in 2006, but was reelected to the Senate as an independent. He is a strong and vocal supporter of Senator McCain and, while he has been restrained in criticising the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama, he’s let loose with a few salvos.

With 49 Senators, Republicans can exert significant influence on legislation, confirmations and the political landscape as a whole. They need just one vote to prevail on an issue since Vice President Dick Cheney would break a tie. Through the filibuster, any 41 of them can stop the Senate from taking any action on a measure. And they’ve successfully wielded this procedural weapon over 90 times in the past two years. Were the threat of a fillibuster to disappear, Democrats could, if they desire and can remain unified, push any vote through the Senate without restraint.

Consequently, 60 is the magic number and Democrats are getting very close to reaching it. 35 Senate seats are up for election this year. When the dust settles,  Congressional Quarterly predicts at least 56 will be Democrats and only 41 Republicans. Three contests, in North Carolina, Minnesota and Mississippi, are too close to call. This assumes both the independent Senators continue to caucus with the Democrats.

What should make Republicans especially nervous is that four of the seats Congressional Quarterly place in the GOP column are only leaning in that direction. One of those is in Oregon where Senator Gordon Smith is being pressed by the state House Speaker, Jeff Merkley. The polls listed on Real Clear Politics, taken in late-September, show Representative Merkley ahead, although narrowly. The economic downturn and the coattails of Senator Obama could flip this seat to the Democrats. Coupled to a sweep of the toss-up contests and the Democrats would be at 60, just one surprise away from the magic number.

Ironically for Republicans, Senator McCain and his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, are harming their chances of winning close Senate races. The GOP running mates have incessantly attacked the Washington culture, condemning Republicans for championing change, but failing to do so. To listen to Senator McCain and Governor Palin, there’s no incumbent in Congress who deserves reelection.  Being hammered by your Democratic opponent is bad enough. To have the top of your own ticket pile on is horrific — and can result in a surprise come election day.

Winning in Oregon, sweeping the three seats where there’s no favorite is a big challenge for Democrats, but it’s certainly a possibility. Doing so would make Senator Lieberman especially powerful. Democrats are angry with him for so visibly and vocally supporting Senator McCain’s presidential bid. Many would like to kick him from the caucus, which would result in his losing the chairmanship of the Senate Governmental Affairs committee.

Yet exacting revenge on the Connecticut Independent could deprive Democrats of their super-majority, creating a 59-41 partisan split in the Senate. This would enable a united GOP caucus to retain just enough power to exert influence. Given this situation, the Democrats might be willing to forgive Senator Lieberman his partisan sins. Indeed, being the determinative vote on breaking a filibuster would make Senator Lieberman extremely powerful in Washington.

Senator Lieberman and the Republican Party, however, better hope there’s not two surprises on November 4th. If Democrats reach 60 seats without the help of Senator Lieberman, the independent lawmaker and his friends in the GOP could well become witnesses to history, not participants in it.

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