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The Limits of 60 Votes

By David S. Broder
Sunday, July 5, 2009

Now that the Minnesota Supreme Court has ended the long count on the 2008 Senate race by awarding the seat to Al Franken, Democrats -- at least on paper -- have the power to pass whatever bills they want, without a single Republican vote.

Nothing would be a bigger mistake.

Franken, the loud-mouthed former comedian, will be the 60th member of the Senate Democratic caucus -- just enough for them to cut off any filibuster threat if they can muster all their members. With solid majorities in both houses, the Democratic leaders, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, could dismiss Republican objections to any bill without a second thought.

Yet that would not only contradict President Obama's promise to change the partisan climate in Washington but would also entail unnecessary risks to Obama's ambitious policy goals.

Many who have heard Republican leaders in Congress proclaim their opposition to almost every piece of Obama's program are saying, "To hell with them." Instead of seeking to enlist Republican support, they urge Obama to tailor everything to the wishes of his Democratic allies.

Yet when it comes to the big initiatives -- energy, health care and the rest -- the risks of such a choice are obvious. When no Republican votes are in play, the price individual Democratic legislators can extract from the White House goes up. We saw plenty of that with the stimulus bill and the energy bill, both of which were weakened substantively by the concessions Obama had to make to get the last Democratic votes.

Scholars will also make the point that when such complex legislation is being shaped, the substance is likely to be improved when both sides of the aisle contribute ideas. And they will argue that public acceptance of the mandated changes in such programs will be greater if the law comes with the imprimatur of both parties.

These are theoretical arguments, not likely to carry much weight among congressional Democrats. The stronger evidence can be found in the experience with Obama's early initiatives.

That record has been clouded by a fog of rhetoric -- especially the excesses of Republicans decrying the president's "socialist" schemes and the Democrats calling the GOP the "party of no."

The simple fact is that White House outreach to Republicans has not failed. It has yielded two of Obama's most important victories. In February, when the White House was searching for 60 votes to end debate on the economic stimulus bill, Obama was rescued by three Republicans -- Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who later switched to the Democratic Party.

That vote, 60 to 38, with not a single one to spare, gave Obama an important early win. Had he failed, or suffered a lengthy delay, his presidency would have been off to an awful start.

The second big win came just days ago, when the House for the first time passed an energy bill limiting discharges of environmentally dangerous carbon. The vote -- after days of frantic bargaining -- was 219 to 212.

For all the attention paid to the concessions made to hold the Democratic defections down to 44, few noticed that if Obama had not been helped by eight Republicans, his margin might have been wiped out. Those eight who defied their own leadership are among the few surviving GOP moderates, and, with their Senate counterparts, they will be crucial again on health care.

To ignore them would be really dumb.

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The saga of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and his Argentine romance has been such ripe fodder for the gossip mills that the essential governmental question has almost been forgotten.

Whether Sanford can resolve the mess he has made of his personal life is of little concern to anyone but the people involved.

But when he disappeared for five days, telling no one in his administration or even his security detail where he had gone, he did something totally irresponsible. Had any kind of emergency occurred, South Carolina would have been leaderless.

At the moment Sanford abandoned his duties in secret pursuit of private pleasure, he in effect tendered his resignation.

The Legislature should insist he follow through on it.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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