Specter, Blue Dogs and Filibusters: the Dynamics

by Bruce Webb

I just went on a web cruise through the bigger venues of the left blogosphere and I don’t think even some of the big guys get it. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that 60 is not a particularly important number because it only takes one Blue Dog to defect to sustain a filibuster. But this I think is to miss the actual dynamics that were in play and how Specter’s move changed the game.

(This ran long so I stuck most of it under the fold.)

First Republicans rarely had to sustain a filibuster through an actual cloture vote, and when they did had the numbers to do it on their own. When Bush was in office they used the filibuster as a stand-in for the veto threat, on the reasonable enough argument that if Democrats couldn’t muster 60 votes for cloture, they sure as hell wouldn’t get 67 to override a veto. So if the ultimate result was going to be a veto then a compromise why not save everyone time and grief and compromise now. In doing so they were able to present themselves as the voice of reason while asserting that everything the Democrats did was simply political posturing in the face of the inevitable. And once compromise was agreed to the Blue Dogs could spring to action without every being openly disloyal to the party. Given that at least some of their votes would be needed to pass any legislation they held a key gatekeeping role.

But the key is that the Republicans took all of what heat there was in this scenario, which is okay for them, there was realistically not much the Democrats could do to them beyond trying to punish them at the ballot box, something they would be doing anyway. Meanwhile the Blue Dogs could but on the White Hat of Compromise.

Things tightened up after the election of Obama, the implicit veto threat now being off the table and so removing the Republican defense that they were only facilitating the ultimate compromise. Now they truly had to be the Party of No in order to be effective, but as long as they could keep a united front they could still prevail. And just as importantly their Blue Dog allies could keep their hands clean.

Well that dynamic changed yesterday. Specter’s move in party may not have much effect on his vote on final legislation but though he denies that this means he will be a reliable 60th vote on cloture in practice that will be impossible. He simply can’t afford to be the constant last vote to block the Leadership agenda, their promise to clean the primary field as much as possible will become null and void if he constantly sides with the Republicans on filibuster threats. And the same goes for the current Blue Dogs. Up to now they have been able to keep their hands clean and while they could hint that they were not certain votes for cloture in practice they had to go along. Which is why Democrats had no defectors on the Obama budget, the Dogs had too much to lose.

Why is why some of the projections on the Left that Bayh or Nelson will jump over to the Republicans are more than overstated. Thinking back over the history of Senatorial defections I can’t think of one since Strom Thrumond went from Dep to Rep in 1964 where someone consciously chose to move into the minority on principle alone.

There may be some key votes where a Blue Dog will simply decide he can spit in the faces of Obama and the Leadership and get away with lining up with Republicans to sustain a filibuster but there will be a price to pay, (as Specter found out when his leadership tacitly endorsed him being primaried by Toomey). So while we can expect them to do their best to block the progressive agenda I don’t think the filibuster will be a viable option, and certainly not if with Bayh you have Presidential ambitions.

So yesterday was a big day. The ideology of the Senate may not have shifted an iota, but the dynamics shifted a lot. Rather than being passive enablers of Republican obstruction the Blue Dogs would have to move into open opposition to Obama. This might work in relation to something like EFCA but if they try to get too blatantly in the way of Health Care reform they will be steamrolled. Something I suspect they know full well.

(In Googling I see that Ben Nelson serves on four powerhouse committees: Appropriations, Armed Services, Agriculture, and Rules and is up for election in 2010. I don’t think he would like to be shifted from one or all of those over to the Indian Affairs or Aging Committees or the Special Committee on Printing in 2008.)