Democrats looking to do well - but maybe not too well


With Democrats looking strong in the polls, their target now is to reach a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate, writes Mark Hennessy in Washington

THE DEMOCRATIC Party is heading for overwhelming majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives. One would never know it though from its presidential candidate Barack Obama, because he never mentions it.

In the final days of campaigning, Republican candidate John McCain is warning that “one-party rule” by the Democrats will lead to a regime of “spend, spend, spend”.

The same message is being given out by his party, though in some places, it is more about trying to shore up under-threat senators and save a base from which they can rebuild than it is about buttressing McCain.

Thirty-five of the 100 seats in the Senate (currently divided 51- 49 in favour of the Democrats) are up for re-election on November 4th and the Republicans are having to defend 23 of them; three appear certain to fall to the Democrats.

The conviction on Monday of Republican senator Ted Stevens from Alaska on corruption charges puts his re-election in doubt, particularly since he is already facing calls from fellow Republican senators to quit.

The dream result for the Democrats would be to command 60 seats, since this would prevent the Republicans from mounting filibuster campaigns to block the passage of legislation.

The Democrats are comfortably ahead in Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia and are leading, but by smaller amounts, in Oregon, New Hampshire, Minnesota and North Carolina.

To breach the 60-seat target, however, they would have to win in either Georgia, Mississippi or Kentucky – the home of Senator minority leader Mitch McConnell, who is feeling the pressure, judging by his call yesterday on Stevens to resign.

If the Democrats do not make 60 seats, then the independent former Democrat senator Joe Lieberman (although, along with independent socialist Bernie Sanders from Vermont, he is formally part of the Democratic caucus in the Senate), could become one of the most important people in American politics.

If they do reach it, he will become the most irrelevant.

In the House of Representatives, the Democrats already hold 236 of the 435 seats and the post of speaker of the House. They could add 25 to 30, strengthening the majority that they have enjoyed there since 2006.

The experience of one-party control of the White House and Congress has not been happy, which explains Obama’s silence on the issue, prompting both parties in their time to over-reach themselves and to be punished for it.

The Democrats last enjoyed a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and command of the House of Representatives between 1977 and 1979 in the first two years of Jimmy Carter’s unhappy presidency.

However, relations between the former governor of Georgia and fellow Democrats on the Hill were fractious, leading to one famous confrontation between Carter’s chief of staff and the then Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill.

Democrats had majorities in both Houses – though not 60 Senate seats – during Bill Clinton’s first two years as president, but relations between Capitol Hill and the White House began badly, and got worse.

The disunity among Democrats helped the Republicans, who were by then reforming their ranks, and the Democrats’ 40-year majority was lost in the 1994 uprising that brought Newt Gingrich and conservative Republicans to the fore.

The Republicans also enjoyed Capitol Hill and White House dominance in President George W Bush’s first six years, but that too fell in the 2006 mid-term elections, which put Democrat Nancy Pelosi in the speaker’s chair.

Should Obama win next Tuesday, there is a possibility this time that things might be different, partly because the economic crisis may focus minds and partly because some senators and elected members of congress will have him to thank for it.

Nevertheless, the bigger the Democrats’ majority, the more difficult it will be to maintain unity afterwards; many of those elected will be mindful that they represent constituencies that have been traditionally Republican.

The Democrats already have 47 of these so-called “bluedog Democrats” in the House of Representatives, such as Travis Childers from Mississippi. Up to now, the Democrats have been able to avoid pushing them too far.

For now, Obama will prefer to dwell on the first term of Franklin D Roosevelt, another president who was elected in the middle of a global economic crisis with a strong congressional majority behind him.

In months, Roosevelt pushed the New Deal through with 15 groundbreaking laws. Relations soured badly subsequently, but that is part of the experience that Obama, if he wins, will choose to forget for now.

“The experience of one-party control of the White House and Congress has not been happy, which explains Barack Obama’s silence on the issue, prompting both parties in their time to over-reach themselves and to be punished for it.