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Supermajority No Guarantee for Gay Progress

Supermajority No Guarantee for Gay Progress


The 2008 election may already be one for the record books, but triumphant Democrats are still vying for an elusive political prize -- the 60-seat supermajority required to overcome Republican filibuster attempts and advance their legislative agenda swiftly beginning in January. But what are the odds of actually getting 60 seats -- and will it really push gay rights to the front of the line?

The 2008 election may already be one for the record books, but triumphant Democrats are still vying for an elusive political prize -- the 60-seat supermajority required to overcome Republican filibuster attempts and advance their legislative agenda swiftly beginning in January. The U.S. Senate's fate, of course, depends on the outcome of two remaining undecided races: Georgia and Minnesota.

"The 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority is a goal of Democrats to be successful in the legislative agenda on a whole host of items," says Sean Cain, assistant professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C.

Although rarely used before the 1960s, the filibuster has since become an increasingly common obstructive tactic, whereby opponents of a Senate proposal extend debate indefinitely to prevent a vote from happening. Under Senate rules, however, 60 senators can end filibusters and push bills to a vote.

"In the past few years, the filibuster has become a defining tool of debate for controversial issues," explains Cain.

Last possessed by Democrats in 1977 under President Jimmy Carter, a filibuster-proof majority was considered a tantalizing but long-shot possibility for Democrats in the 2008 election.

This trend toward filibustering on contentious items invites the question of how obtaining the 60-seat milestone might affect gay rights legislation in the Senate. Despite the hype and hope, it appears that a potential Democratic supermajority would have negligible direct impact for LGBT issues in comparison to other, stronger factors like lobbying and presidential leadership.

"I think for these issues," says Cain, "the impact of the filibuster-proof majority is overstated."

Cain bases his assessment on the reluctant support for gay rights issues from right-leaning Democrats, who are increasingly essential to Democratic supremacy.

"Just having a 60-vote supermajority won't be enough for the Democrats. They have to be able to hold them together. That's easier said than done."

Ken Sherrill, professor of political science at Hunter College of the City University of New York, agrees.

"I don't think the issue is whether we have a filibuster-proof majority," says Sherrill. "You don't need a filibuster-proof majority. You need 60 votes."

Sherrill cites the pragmatic, bipartisan coalitions that successfully passed other civil rights legislation, as far back as 1964.

"You need a stamp of approval," he says. "It demonstrates there is broad consensus."

In other words, if lingering legislation on hate crimes and employment nondiscrimination moves, it will likely be a bipartisan effort of many, but not all, Democrats working with more moderate Republicans.

But even then, the Senate will have been but one ingredient in the complex process that gets legislation passed.

"There has to be some lobbying," says Sherrill. "There has to be some education. There has to be some signal from the White House that they want this to go forward."

Once again, it seems, all eyes are on the president-elect and his incoming team even as the coveted "magic 60" hangs in the balance.


After the concession of long-serving Republican senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them hold 58 seats. The results of undetermined contests in Georgia and Minnesota could push them to the supermajority, but the races show distinctly different dynamics, and suggest that a split victory is slightly more likely than a Democratic sweep.

In Georgia, first-term Republican incumbent senator Saxby Chambliss will face Democratic challenger Jim Martin in a runoff election on December 2. The rematch is the result of a Georgia law that requires a candidate to receive more than 50% of the total vote to win. In the original contest, Chambliss garnered 49.8% of the vote, Martin received 46.8%, and Libertarian candidate Alan Buckley took 3.4%.

With the two leading candidates now set back to zero, winning is largely a matter of who can compel the most voters to participate given the unusual circumstances.

"There's a lot of uncertainty," says Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University. "The uncertainty is, Whose supporters are going to turn out?"

One thing that is certain, says Abramowitz, is that only half of the 3.9 million voters who participated in the presidential election are expected to turn out in December. Particularly important for Democrats is sustaining enthusiasm among the more than 240,000 new African-American voters who were energized by the historic Obama candidacy.

"They're going to try to get as many of those new Democratic voters out there as possible," says Abramowitz, "but they are not going to be able to get them all out."

When a similar Senate runoff was held in Georgia in 1992, Republican challenger Paul Coverdell defeated incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler, who led but did not obtain a majority in the first round. Turnout fell by 50% in the runoff.

Another factor favoring Republicans is Libertarian voter behavior. Overall, Libertarians gravitate toward Republicans, suggesting their votes for Buckley could go to Chambliss. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll showed Chambliss in the lead with 50%, compared to 46% for Martin.

Above all, despite changing demographics, Georgia remains reliably red; Republican presidential candidate John McCain carried the state. High-profile visits completed and in the works from former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and potentially even Obama himself may not be sufficient to produce a Democratic victory.


If parties are working feverishly to tip the results in Georgia, in Minnesota the task largely involves waiting for results to reveal themselves in the tight contest between first-term Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken. Right now the state is undertaking a painstaking hand recount of 2.9 million paper ballots. The effort was prompted by Coleman's razor-thin lead -- 215 votes, well within the one half of 1% that triggers a recount under state law.

"When you have 215 votes separating the candidates, errors can make all the difference in having the incorrect candidate called the winner," says Mary Currin-Percival, assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

During the recount, which is expected to last until December 5, representatives for both campaigns will observe and challenge ballots, which the secretary of state will then forward to the State Canvassing Board for a December 19 ruling. Meanwhile, in a separate matter, the Franken campaign is pressing for a number of rejected absentee ballots to be considered. If court proceedings and delays ensue, by law the U.S. Senate would decide the winner.

Despite the high stakes, the recount thus far is generally organized and calm.

"In Minnesota it's a pretty open process," says Currin-Percival. "In all elections, there are mistakes, but in the hand recount, you find the true winner."

Among the potential mistakes in question are about 34,000 residual votes, or ballots that lack a recorded Senate vote, either because the voter intentionally skipped the contest or a machine could not read the oval marked on a hand ballot. A new study by Dartmouth College professors Michael Herron, Jonathan Chipman, and Jeffrey Lewis uses data from the 2006 and 2008 general elections to show that more of those latter, unintentional residual ballots tend to be cast by Democrats, suggesting that Franken could trump the slim Coleman margin.

No matter what happens in Minnesota, the state's characteristic order and clarity are expected to prevail.

"Essentially, there's not going to be the situation with hanging chads," said Kevin Parsneau, assistant professor of political science at Minnesota State University, Mankato, referring to the chaotic scenes that plagued the Florida recount of 2000.

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