Getting to Sixty

| Wed May 13, 2009 4:31 PM EDT

Senate Republicans blocked their first Obama administration appointee on Wednesday, successfully filibustering the nomination of David Hayes to be deputy secretary of the interior department. Democrats needed 60 senators to force a final vote on Hayes, but failed, 57-38.  Senate majority leader Harry Reid voted with the Republicans so that he can bring a motion to reconsider in future. Democrats stand a decent chance of winning a re-vote—in addition to Reid's vote, they would pick up three Democrats who were absent on Wednesday. Hayes isn't the only potential casualty. The GOP is also planning to filibuster Dawn Johnsen, Obama's nominee to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. So far, the Democrats can't stop them—Reid told Roll Call Wednesday that he doesn't yet have the votes he needs to overcome a filibuster.

So it seems that Republicans' strategy of using the filibuster to try to block anything they possibly can is succeeding. Use of the filibuster more than doubled between the 109th Congress, when the Republicans last had control of the Senate, and the 110th, when the Democrats took over. Republican filibustering has continued at that previously unprecedented pace in the 111th Congress.

Democrats did not filibuster early Bush administration executive branch nominees like Jay Bybee, who held the job Johnsen has been nominated for. (Bybee was confirmed by a voice vote.) Matt Yglesias writes: "I think it’s pretty obvious that the trends over the past 5-10 years are pointing in the direction of constant filibustering leading to the total paralysis of the American government."

If Yglesias is right, and constant filibustering will be the rule for the considerable future, Republicans might want to reconsider their obstructionist tactics. The Economist's (anonymous) Democracy In America blog explains that "in the long run," more filibustering is "really bad for Republicans":

Sixty seats are hard to come by; for a party to soar from 45 to 60 seats in two elections, as the Democrats did in 2006-2008, is almost unheard of. And no Republican thinks his party will achieve that soon.

The GOP has not won 60 seats since the Senate became a 100-member body, after Hawaii and Alaska became states. The last time it won 60 percent of the seats in the upper house was 1920. It has literally not held 60 seats in a century. So the standard being set here can only lead to sclerosis.

Will Republicans heed the warning? I doubt it. They haven't had much success recently in the long-term planning department.

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