The 55 Limit

[ Posted Thursday, January 22nd, 2015 – 17:50 UTC ]

[Full Retraction: The entire premise of this article is incorrect. The split between Senate Republicans and Democrats is not 55/45, but rather 54/46. What happened was that I utterly failed to check a basic fact while writing, editing, and posting this article. I relied on my own memory of a 55/45 split, and just ran with it. This memory was incorrect -- the previous Senate had 55 Democrats and 45 Republicans (this was the basis of my error, in other words). I wasn't aware of making this error until very recently, which is why it has taken so long to run this retraction. I apologize profusely for both the delay and the factual error. Because the entire premise or theme of the article simply would not work with the number 54 (Sammy Hagar never sang "I can't drive 54!"), I can't even just make a few quick edits to correct the text. Instead, I am leaving it up as a monument (and this is not the first such monument on this website, I might add) to the importance of fact-checking. I blew it. There is simply no other excuse. Mea culpa maxima.]


Sammy Hagar, famously, couldn't drive 55. The double-nickel Hagar sang about was the national speed limit, in miles per hour. The Republican Party is about to find out that there's a new 55 limit in Washington, and it's going to cause some Hagar-level rage on its own. Because 55 senators is not the same as 60, or 67. This simple mathematical statement is about to confound the GOP's entire strategy for the next two years.

To put this a little less cryptically, it's beginning to look like the biggest political battles over the next two years won't be fought between Democrats and Republicans, or even President Obama and Republicans. The big fights are likely to erupt between the House Republicans and the Senate Republicans. Because while the House can be driven by Tea Party or right-wing extremism, the Senate will not be able to successfully operate in such a fashion. The only route open to Senate Republicans is going to be some form of compromise, and we all know that compromise is a very ugly word to House Republicans.

Senate Republicans are now facing a trap of their own making. Ever since Ted Kennedy died and left the Democrats with fewer than 60 votes in the Senate, the Republicans have gone on the biggest filibuster tear in all of American history, blocking pretty much every bill that came along, no matter how important (or how trivial) and no matter how fierce their ideological opposition. They filibustered because they could. That's about to bite them where they sit down, though, because after years of this tactic, Democrats are more than eager to give the Senate Republicans a taste of their own medicine. Only the irony-impaired will believe any whining from Senate Republicans now over "unprecedented Democratic obstructionism," since they themselves set that precedent, and very recently.

The grand Republican scheme, after taking control of both houses of Congress, has been to pass everything on their agenda, put all these hardline-conservative bills on the president's desk, and make lots of political hay when he vetoes them all. That's the way it was supposed to work, but that's probably not what is actually going to happen. More than likely, the reality will fall far short of this planned exercise in political theater. Oh, sure, the House can and will pass lots and lots of odious bills, but most of them will quite likely die an unlamented death in the Senate. There will be no veto, because the bills will never reach Obama's desk. The blame game for this failure is going to be fierce, and it will consist mostly of Republican-on-Republican shouting matches. House Republicans, unfamiliar with the realities of the filibuster, will decry Mitch McConnell's inability to wave some sort of magic wand and pass their bills through the Senate.

Senate Republicans will be in a serious bind, because anything they do is going to earn them scorn from the Tea Party hardliners in the House. They can push through the uncompromising House legislation, and watch it die before it even gets a floor vote. Or they can attempt to wheedle five or six Democrats to vote for their bills -- but the only way they're going to be able to do so is by toning the bill down in significant ways. Which will earn them more scorn (and cries of "RINO!") from the House Republicans. Added to the Senate dynamic will be two critical factors -- the presidential race and the upcoming Senate election cycle. The 2016 election is going to loom over the Senate in a way the House will not experience. At least three Republican senators have expressed strong interest in running (Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul), and that list could grow (Lindsey Graham flirted with the idea of a run just last Sunday). So there will be pressure from senators out on the campaign trail not to compromise, as they all attempt to out-flank each other on the right. However, an opposing pressure will come from within Republican ranks, because the map for Republicans is so dicey for the 2016 Senate races. Republicans will be defending far more seats than Democrats, and a lot of those seats are in awfully blue states. To have any hope of winning re-election, Republican senators from these states will be pushing hard to water down all the fire-breathing bills from the House, so they don't have to cast votes that will be used against them by their Democratic opponents. This means that McConnell is going to have to worry not only about picking up five Democratic votes, but also about holding his own caucus together. He'll be faced with defections from the right if he tries to craft a compromise, or defections from the blue-state Republicans if he refuses to attempt a compromise. Meaning he may actually need more than five Democratic votes -- which means he'll have to compromise even more. This balancing act may prove impossible.

Most rank-and-file voters don't understand these esoteric parliamentary dynamics, though. The Republican base has been in a celebratory mood ever since the midterms, because they think they are now in "full control" of Congress. They're not going to be satisfied with half-measures. They are setting themselves up for some massive disappointment, to put this another way.

Of course, there are a few bills that might actually make it through the Senate, because they already have some Democratic support. The Keystone XL pipeline approval, for instance. But other than Keystone, there aren't a whole lot of issues that can pass the Senate that the base even cares about that much. Tea Party rallies don't usually feature group chants for fast-track trade approval, for instance. Any other technical (or "small ball") measures aren't likely to win a whole lot of praise from the base.

There will be one big chance for Republicans to push their pet issues through: reconciliation votes on the budget. This won't happen until much later in the year, though, since Republicans cut a deal before the end of last year to fund the budget through October. By that point, so much frustration may have built up among House Republicans that they may go into an orgy of legislation by loading up the budget with their entire conservative agenda. If the Senate goes along with this, it virtually guarantees an Obama veto. And, as I noted, 55 is nowhere near the 67 votes necessary for overturning a veto.

But while there may be a big veto "who blinks first" moment over the budget later in the year, my guess at this point is that there will be far fewer instances of vetoes before that point than many Republicans now expect. Because while the House is free to pass anything they wish, the Senate just isn't. Rather than the theater of sending bill after bill after bill to Obama to veto, they may instead have to settle for watching all those House bills quietly die in the Senate. That's nowhere near as satisfying political theater as the presidential veto pen, to put it mildly, and it will make for a much more intra-party blame game on the Republican side.

The Republican caucus in the House is already showing some cracks, even though Boehner has a huge majority to work with. But the first big unavoidable fight is going happen next month between the House and the Senate over what tactics to use in the fight over Obama's immigration policy. This will be the first test of fire for Republicans, and it's already looking like the House Republicans are going to be disappointed by their counterparts in the Senate. This fight will have a deadline, and a targeted government shutdown threat for the Homeland Security Department. In other words, something has to pass. Because this bill cannot just die a quiet death in the Senate, Republicans are going to be forced to come face to face with the limit of having only 55 votes. And, much as Sammy Hagar lamented, that's just not going to be enough to satisfy those who want to put the pedal to the metal (so to speak).

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


11 Comments on “The 55 Limit”

  1. [1] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Bonus link for Sammy Hagar fans:

    When the national 55 limit was repealed, one state (Arizona, from memory, but that could be wrong) actually invited Hagar to go out with a road crew to replace a "55 mph" sign. I found the photo, but was too lazy to find the accompanying story, sorry.


  2. [2] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    RINO McConnell told Dems “You’ll regret this and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.” when they went nuclear, so what is he waiting for? End the filibuster Mitch!

  3. [3] 
    dsws wrote:

    House Republicans, unfamiliar with the realities of the filibuster ...

    Really? I suppose there's no civics-test requirement for getting on the ballot, but still, really?

    To have any hope of winning re-election, Republican senators from these states will be pushing hard to water down all the fire-breathing bills from the House, so they don't have to cast votes that will be used against them by their Democratic opponents.

    They don't have to vote for every piece of veto-bait the House sends their way. Wouldn't they do better by having the House send up twice as many bills, and letting the blue-state senators vote against half of them so they can crow about their independence? They don't have to worry too much about what's in a bill they know isn't going to become law, so they should be able to churn them out.

  4. [4] 
    Pastafarian Dan wrote:

    Although I doubt a lot of these bills will even come to a vote because of inter-caucus fighting on the GOP side, I hope that the DEMs will, whenever possible, engage in actual "talking filibusters" when they do decide to filibuster a bill. This will illustrate the difference between obstruction for the sake of obstruction (which is what the GOP has done for the last 6 years) and fighting against a bill you think is bad for the country. Plus.....good theater!

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    So, what ya'all are saying is that Democrats are going to be.....

    Going to be....


    O M G!!!!! IT'S THE END OF DAYS!!!!


    The only real question is going to be...

    Will ya'all castigate Democrats for being obstructionist as much as you castigated Republicans??

    Actually, come to think of it, that's not really a question at all, is it?? :D


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    To have any hope of winning re-election, Republican senators from these states will be pushing hard to water down all the fire-breathing bills from the House, so they don't have to cast votes that will be used against them by their Democratic opponents.

    Sound familiar??

    That is what is known as the Harry Reid Strategy... :D


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    And yes..

    It sucks as bad and is as gutless when the GOP does it as much as it sucks when the Dem Party does it..


  8. [8] 
    TheStig wrote:

    This article, and the yesterday's Home Field Advantage describe Evolutionarily Stable Political Strategies (ESSPS). For both parties, it's not about personal philosophy, it's about personal political survival of the politically fittest in their political habitats: Executive, Senate and National House of Pancakes. I have Googled ESSPS, and find it's an actual scholarly field with publications! Who knew? Other than political operatives and such like.

    The ESSPS favors extreme Republican presidential primary candidates. Cruz Control, or more accurately the lack of Cruz Control is going to discourage any Republican Candidate who thinks he/she?? might want to someday actually occupy the chair in the Oval Office at some point in the future. The ESSPS strategy for any GOP candidate is tack hard right in the primaries, than tack centerist in the general election. Then expect to lose, because the Electoral College landscape favors Dems at in '16 at least as much as it did in '12 qne '08. If you are just interested in using the primaries as a soap box, this great news, but it's got to discourage anybody who wants to actually do some governing. This why I think Romney's clueless-ness makes him the favorite for nomination, over Jeb Bush. Romney really believes he can thread the needle this time. Just tweak the his message a little. Throw a lot of his own money at the problem early, to discourage pretenders like Bush who'll have to raise it. Jeb will explore, see the head hunters, and decide it's not his year. Christie like wise. He's ballooned again = not serious.

    About Cruz Control. I Googled that too. No political hits, although it is a product, it gets you a designated driver, and a fine one too, I'm sure. Have I coined a political phrase destined to break out? That would be fun.

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    About Cruz Control. I Googled that too. No political hits, although it is a product, it gets you a designated driver, and a fine one too, I'm sure. Have I coined a political phrase destined to break out? That would be fun.

    Better snatch up before someone gets it!! :D


  10. [10] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    No Sammy Hagar fans?

    Well, I'm not one either, I have to admit, but I always did think it was a pretty good song. And that story about a state letting him change a sign was priceless!



  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    No Sammy Hagar fans?

    Sammy who??? :D heh


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