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November 20, 2004
With Specter Humbled, 109th Senate May Be Smooth Sailing

John Tabin wrote in today's American Spectator that the groundswell of outrage surrounding Arlen Specter's comments and pending chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee has had a salutary effect on the GOP. Tabin argues convincingly that the debate has caused Specter to retreat substantially on his independence of action:

If Specter makes trouble for conservative nominees during the next two years, his betrayal, he must now realize, will have consequences. His fellow Senators were nearly willing to throw away precedents to deny him his chairmanship because of conservative mistrust of the kind of things Specter might do as Judiciary Chairman; Specter would be a fool to give them an immediately recent record to point to. As liberal Sam Rosenfeld wistfully put it on the American Prospect's blog earlier this week, "Arlen Specter the independent and outspoken senior senator from Pennsylvania has already lost out on the chairmanship, and at best an empty vessel for carrying out the White House's judicial priorities in the droopy visage of Arlen Specter will be taking the helm."

He says that like it's a bad thing.

Put simply, giving Specter what he desires most under threat of taking it away at the first sign of betrayal keeps Specter on a leash, while cutting him loose would have left him free to cause all sorts of problems in the next session. Now Specter has been forced to commit his unconditional support not only for all of Bush's nominees and reject any abortion litmus test, but also to endorse the so-called nuclear option -- a rule change forbidding filibusters on judicial nominees. Strategically, it's as close to unconditional surrender as one can get.

But how likely will a filibuster be? Mathematically, they're still possible; the GOP only has 55 votes, and it takes 60 to pass a cloture motion ending debate. Republicans have to convince 5 Senators to stop a filibuster, better odds than they had in this session but still not a sure thing.

Looking ahead to the next election cycle -- and yes, I hear all of you groaning out there -- a surprising fact emerges: Senate Democrats carry more risk in 2006 than their GOP counterparts. First, more of them have to defend their seats in 2006, 17 against 15 for Republicans and one independent (Jim Jeffords of Vermont). Looking at the margin of victory or defeat (negative numbers) for George Bush in their states, the Democrats up for reelection averaged a "Bush factor" of -1.95. The 15 GOP Senators, in comparison, have a Bush factor of 12.26, meaning that their states are much more reliably Republican.

A look at individual races shows this gap even more clearly. Republicans only have to defend three seats where Bush lost: Olympia Snowe in Maine (-8.6), Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania (-2.2), and Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island (-20.6). Of these, only Chafee really carries any risk, but mostly because of the risk that Chafee will either go independent or switch to the Democrats. They couldn't convince him to do that this week, but you can bet they'll try it again, given their problems in 2006.

Democrats have to defend seats in five red states, compared to the three blue states for the GOP, and the gaps are much sharper:

Bill Nelson, Florida - +5.0
Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico - +1.1
Ben Nelson, Nebraska - +33.5
Kent Conrad, North Dakota - +27.4
Robert Byrd, West Virginia - +12.7

Of these, at least Ben Nelson is unlikely to sustain a filibuster anyway, but none of these five can feel sanguine about their ability to defend their seats if they acquire a reputation for obstructionism. Robert Byrd probably won't run for re-election at his age, but getting a Democrat to replace him will be critical for his fellow party members. Conrad's partner Byron Dorgan got re-elected even with the Bush landslide in North Dakota but only because he successfully distanced himself from the naked partisanship of Tom Daschle.

The Democrats may come out talking tough, but they've sat through two election cycles where the GOP have defied history to take more and more seats from them. Harry Reid will be looking at these numbers when he devises the minority strategy for the Senate in the next session and will do whatever he can to stop the bleeding. He'll be lucky not to lose more ground to the GOP in two years, and he won't risk Daschle's open partisan warfare that marginalized the Democrats the past four years.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 20, 2004 8:00 AM

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» The interim conclusion from The Cassandra Page
Specter is now humbled and has made many recent promises under the glare of the national spotlight. The Republicans on the Judiciary Committee now have their fingers on the trigger and will not be taken by surprise if Specter tries to betray them. [Read More]

Tracked on November 20, 2004 2:29 PM

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