By most accounts, polling, and reporting, Republicans will gain a majority in the Senate in the 2014 mid-term elections this November. That means Republicans will control the entirety of the legislature, a notion that terrifies Democrats. In part, Democrats fear Republicans would be free to pass legislation easily, however, it is unlikely that the president would sign Republican passed bills, which will bring the stalemate to new glacial dimensions.
A Republican takeover of the Senate will not be a total game changer from the perspective of Democrats, though. Due to filibuster reform failure Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) promised two years ago, all legislation still needs 60 votes to pass the chamber. The Senate is considered one of the most anti-democratic entities of the American republic. Originally, senators were elected by state legislatures, not the people. It was not until the Seventeenth Amendment that the people elected their senators directly. In addition, each state has two senators, regardless of population, which can lead to vast inequality in representation. Take California: two senators represent a combined population of 38 million people across the state, which is equivalent to the population of 22 states combined, or 44 senators who represent the same population of the state of California. In fact, the Senate was not meant to be Democratic. “The framers did not want the popular vote to control everything,” conservative commentator Mark Levin told the New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Toobin. The Framer’s fear of popular vote is also evident in the Electoral College when choosing a president. Then there is the filibuster, a way to protect the minority from majority tyranny. Used only as a last resort in previous congresses, it has now become the norm for passing legislation.
Republicans in the House and punditry sometimes point to the failure of the majority Democrat Senate (53 Democrats, 45 Republicans, and two Independents who caucus with the Democrats) to pass initiatives the president has asked for, such as his border funding proposal, in an effort to discredit the legislation, Democrats in the Senate and/or the president. The misnomer behind this argument is that under current Senate rules, legislation needs sixty votes – not a simple majority, which would be 51 – allowing the minority party to easily block measures they oppose, which means Republicans can hold up or block legislation in the Senate. If Republicans take the Senate starting in 2015, Democrats will be able to do the same for legislative proposals.
Gridlock became so unbearable in the Senate, Harry Reid invoked what was referred to as the nuclear option for presidential nominees, which infuriated Republicans. What this means is that presidential nominees such as judges, cabinet officials, or ambassadors only need a simple majority to pass confirmation (Reid and the Democrats left out Supreme Court justice nominations from the new process meaning they would still need to hurdle the 60 vote threshold.) Republicans such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stated that the nuclear option could come back to haunt Democrats if Republicans ever gain the majority and a Republican sat in the Oval Office. If the GOP takes the Senate, the president’s nominees would most likely sit and wait in Congress given the political animosity between congressional Republicans and the president, because Republicans would be able to stall or hold up nominations indefinitely. If Republicans gain control of the Senate in 2014, maintain that majority through the next election, and a Republican is elected president in 2016, Republicans will be able to usher nominees through confirmation without any resistance.
It would appear that the failure of filibuster reform may benefit the Democrats if they lose their majority in the mid-term elections. Though, the Senate’s lack of democracy could cause tensions in Washington to reach crisis proportions in the 114th Congress. For Democrats, the sky will not fall if they do in the Senate.