When a side that “plays to win” is in the political minority, they assert whatever power they can get. This is the position Republicans, after two elections of solid blue victories, are stuck in at the federal and state level. Shut out of the presidency and the U.S. House of Representatives, the G.O.P. clings to the only thing they control: 41 seats in the United States Senate. In California, the one time that Republicans even matter in the Legislature is to pass a budget – and only because of the “two-thirds rule.”
Relegated to a permanent minority in the Golden State, the party has employed this trump card with a vengeance – refusing to pass a single tax increase whatsoever. But like a dinosaur who knows its days are numbered, these obstructionists are on their way out. An early glance at the Senate races in 2010 should embolden Democrats, who could next year win a filibuster-proof majority. In California, a successful campaign to scrap the “two-thirds rule” would render state Republicans (at least in their current form) extinct. For that reason, expect these dinosaurs to make it a “fight to the death” – because for them, it is.
U.S. Senate: Last Bastion of Republican Power
In Congress, Republicans in both chambers are obstructing Barack Obama’s budget – taking cues from Rush Limbaugh’s desire to have the President fail. House Minority Leader John Boehner even admitted the G.O.P. doesn’t have votes to legislate – and at this point, they only want to communicate. All of that is white noise, however, because Democrats run the House by a 78-seat margin. The federal stimulus, for example, passed the House without a single Republican vote – making these folks irrelevant.
What’s more interesting is the U.S. Senate, where an ineffectual Democratic Leader means Republicans only have to “threaten” a filibuster – which means most legislation needs sixty votes to go forward. And even if Harry Reid were more assertive, the traditional Senate protocol has been to give the minority party leeway. Democrats in the Senate have 58 seats, and Republicans control 41. As a result, the Senate is the last bastion of G.O.P. power in Washington – and Republicans are clutching it jealously.
Despite the legal shenanigans in Minnesota (which I gave up following a long time ago), in the near future Al Franken will be seated – giving Democrats their 59th Senator. But Norm Coleman’s desperate plea is no longer about winning last year’s election. It has become a concerted G.O.P. effort to keep the seat vacant, keeping Democrats from fully utilizing their majority. The longer Coleman can drag this fight on, the easier it is for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to obstruct progressive measures – putting Democrats on their toes to cobble together 60 votes.
And it’s not easy. There aren’t many G.O.P. moderates left, giving progressives little breathing room to pass legislation. Working people need EFCA (the Employee Free Choice Act), but McConnell has made defeating it his priority. At this point, organized labor says they’re willing to broker a deal with Republican Senator Arlen Specter. If he supports EFCA, unions will support him for re-election next year. Specter is facing a tough primary challenge from right-winger Pat Toomey, and labor even said they would encourage its members to re-register as Republicans to save him.
But two years from now, cutting such deals may be unnecessary. It’s too early to predict everything in 2010, but FiveThirtyEight already has a chart with the 15 Senate seats most likely to switch party control next year. Besides Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania (which is currently ranked #1), seven of the “Top Ten” are held by Republicans – including all of the top six. The only Senate Democrats in any danger of losing re-election are Nevada’s Harry Reid, Illinois’ Roland Burris and Connecticut’s Chris Dodd. If Burris loses the primary, Democrats should keep that seat.
In other words, Democrats are favored to expand their 59-41 majority next year – giving them a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. By January 2011, Republicans could be completely shut out of power in Washington – left to wallow and complain, while the Obama Administration delivers on pledges like universal health care and clean energy. Meanwhile, expect them to continue groveling at every inch that they can grab.
Sacramento: Obsolete Rule Keeps Republicans Alive
The “two-thirds rule” in the California Constitution – requiring any budget to get a two-thirds vote in the state legislature – was passed during the Great Depression. Whatever its merits were at the time, it has outlived its usefulness – and today enables a bitter minority to hold the state hostage. Demographic trends in the past decade have made it virtually impossible for a Republican to win major statewide office in California. But staunch conservative counties like Fresno and Shasta still send G.O.P. legislators to Sacramento.
A Republican from “Red California” can’t expect to become Speaker of the Assembly, or President of the State Senate. The state as a whole almost guarantees that Democrats will keep their majority. Democrats today control 63% of the legislative seats in Sacramento – which is consistent with Barack Obama’s 61-39 margin in the state over John McCain. California’s Republican voter base is older, whiter and shrinking in size and relevance.
But the Republicans still have one trump card that allows them to run the State Capitol – the “two-thirds rule.” And as the financial crisis plunges California into the red, budget issues have swamped Sacramento. For years, G.O.P. legislators have signed the Grover Norquist Pledge where they refuse to vote for a single tax increase – and every year, they forced Democrats to buckle. When pressed, they said obstructing the budget is the “only time” they have any power. The state may be blue, but Democrats still don’t outnumber them two-to-one. Afraid of the future, Republicans are using this power while they can.
Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron — an alternative online daily based in San Francisco providing news coverage ignored or distorted by the San Francisco Chronicle. He is a tenants’ rights attorney at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, an active member of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and was an elected official on the Berkeley Rent Board from 2000-2004. He lives in San Francisco.