The 111th Congress will be more Democratic than the 110th. By latest count, the Senate will be 58D-40R, with two races (Minnesota and Georgia) undecided. The House will be 256D-175R, with four races outstanding. Compare these divisions to those of the 91st Congress (1969-1971), the first of RN’s presidency. The Senate was 58D-42R and the House was 243D-192R. The Senate split was about the same. Though the House was a bit closer than it will be next year, Democrats still had a substantial majority.
These numbers, however, conceal fundamental changes in the way that Congress works. During RN’s time, bipartisanship was a necessity. In both chambers, there were substantial numbers of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. Passing conservative measures required the cooperation of Boll Weevils such as Senator John Stennis. Passing liberal ones required Frostbelt Republicans such as Senator Jacob Javits. Today’s Congress is far more polarized: most Republicans are conservative and most Democrats are liberal.
In the House, with its majoritarian procedures, the Democrats can get their way without any Republican help at all. In 2007, when reporters asked about GOP support for an Iraq drawdown, Speaker Pelosi said: “I’m the last person to ask about Republican votes.” With an enhanced majority in 2009, the speaker will regard House Republicans as nothing more than annoying members of the studio audience. In the Senate, it takes 60 voters to close a filibuster. If Democrats win the Georgia runoff and the Minnesota recount, they will have a filibuster-proof majority. Even if they don’t, they only need a couple of GOP votes to get their way.
At first, these Democratic majorities will move President Obama’s agenda — and move it quickly. Over time, however, congressional Democrats will pursue an agenda of their own. President Obama may desire bipartisan cooperation, but Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will push Congress in a tough partisan direction.