Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Friday, October 21, 2016

By William Douglas and David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — Sixty. It’s the magic number for getting most things done in the U.S. Senate — and it will be the target for Republicans to get legislation through the House of Representatives, past Democratic objections in the Senate and to the desk of President Barack Obama.

Republicans will have at most 54 seats in the new Senate next January. So they’d need to gain at least six Democrats on anything controversial, to break a legislation-blocking filibuster by the rest of the Democrats.

And they might do it. From an oil pipeline to a medical tax, there are some areas where the Senate could marshal 60 or more votes. The challenge will be building a new coalition on each issue.

If Republicans move to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s medical-device tax, for example, they might lure liberal Democrats such as Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, who voted for the repeal in a symbolic vote last year.

On the Keystone pipeline, they’d likely lose those Democrats but might look to others, based on past votes.

Here’s how it could happen.

Keystone XL pipeline

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who will be the majority leader when the Republicans take over, has vowed that the Senate will vote next year to push the 1,700-mile pipeline, which would send oil from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Senate Democratic leaders blocked consideration of the pipeline for two years, while Obama postponed his approval.

The pipeline picks up at least one vote with the election of supporter Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican who’ll replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who opposed it. And chances are that Democrats who felt pressure to oppose, or at least delay, a vote on the pipeline won’t feel the same heat.

“The reality is you gain that vote in Iowa and you solidify all those folks who could have been pressured out of voting for it,” said Frank Maisano, an energy expert at a Washington law firm that represents a variety of industry clients.

Earlier this year, Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and John Hoeven (R-ND) introduced a bill that would approve the pipeline. Landrieu, who’s now the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, may not return in January: She faces a runoff Dec. 6 against Republican Bill Cassidy.

But the measure was sponsored by all Senate Republicans, as well as six Democrats who are coming back next year: Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Warner of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

Health care

Senate Democrats will block Republican efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act, but enough of them might go along with some changes in the health care law that would make it to Obama.

McConnell might move to repeal a 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices that’s in the law, and he may have willing partners in several Democratic senators, including Warren, Klobuchar and Franken, who represent major medical-device-making states.

Last year, 79 senators — including 33 Democrats and independent Angus King of Maine — supported a nonbinding measure to repeal the tax.

“Yes, they would like to get rid of it, but I don’t know how Congress would pay for a repeal of the tax,” said Timothy Jost, a law professor at Virginia’s Washington and Lee University who specializes in health care issues.


Getting to 60 on spending bills “is one of those achievable areas,” said Maya MacGuineas, the president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

One big reason: Appropriations Committee members have lots to trade. For example, when Congress approved its two-year bipartisan budget agreement two years ago, Democrats got more money for social programs and Republicans won increases in defense spending. The plan got 72 votes last January.

That agreement expires Sept. 30, 2015, which means lawmakers will have to start anew. In once instance their task will be easier, because Congress is likely to approve a budget blueprint for the first time in five years.

That budget, which is supposed to be finished by mid-April, has stalled because Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree. Next year that won’t be a problem, and under budget rules only 51 votes are needed for passage.

Spending bills will still need 60, but analysts don’t think that will be a problem.

“They have a history of building coalitions on those bills,” MacGuineas said.

National Security Agency

Senate Republicans and Democrats might get to 60 in changing how the National Security Agency collects data in its efforts to sniff out terrorist threats.

There’s broad bipartisan support for the USA Freedom Act, a 2013 bill sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that would curb the NSA’s bulk collection of American’s phone records. A less stringent version of the bill passed the House on a rare bipartisan 303-121 vote in May.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) co-sponsored the bill, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said in July that the measure “sends a strong signal that a bipartisan coalition in Congress is working to safeguard our privacy rights.”

“If lawmakers are looking for a bill to vote on that could pass, this is it,” said Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Ted Cruz, Sen. Leahy and the ACLU, all supportive of the same bill.”

However, the liberal-conservative alliance doesn’t mean a slam-dunk for revamping the NSA. James Lewis, a security and technology expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a public policy research center, said a Republican-controlled Senate might be less inclined to place more restrictive measures on the agency, especially with the rise of the Islamic State group and recent terrorism-related attacks in Canada.


Getting a comprehensive immigration plan, including a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people already living in the U.S. illegally, might be difficult in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Addressing immigration in a piecemeal fashion may be easier, perhaps easing the way for such immigrants to stay in the country.

Some of the key players in last year’s bipartisan effort, notably Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) have pushed for comprehensive immigration legislation for years and are expected to continue doing so. Fourteen Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two independents last year to pass the comprehensive immigration bill, which went nowhere in the House, and 13 of them will still be in the Senate next year.

Prison sentencing

Lawmakers from both parties have been working together on ways to reduce the nation’s overcrowded prison population.

Potential Republican presidential candidates such as Cruz and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio have talked about the need for change. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has endorsed the idea of restoring voting rights for some nonviolent felons and changing some drug felonies to misdemeanors.

Senate Democratic Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois and the tea party-backed Lee authored the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would cut mandatory minimum sentences for many federal nonviolent drug offenses. The Judiciary Committee approved the bill in February on a 13-5 vote.

In March, the committee voted 15-2 to approve a bill sponsored by Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would allow early release for low-risk prisoners who participate in job training, education and drug treatment programs.

Said Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project, an advocacy organization: “I think both bills have enough bipartisan support to overcome filibusters.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

  • FireBaron

    They may be able to reach 60, but it is unlikely they will reach the 67 needed to overcome a Presidential Veto.

    • johninPCFL

      Yeah, but like Reagan, GWB, Clinton, etc. he will NOT VETO a spending bill. All they have to do is attach an amendment to a spending bill, like fetus personhood or some other sharia law component, and get it passed. Once done, the president will sign it.

      • Don51

        Dubya vetoed a spending bill at the start of a year because it would have allowed tortured soldiers to sue Iraq!
        The only man to apologize for 9/11, Richard Clark, highlights all kinds of abuses of our military under the Bush administration – just more evidence of overall Republican lies and deceptions! The greatest destructors of American Democracy – the Republican party!

  • itsfun

    Or, McConnell will just use special rules like dirty Harry did with the obama care tax and only need a simple majority.

    • Don51

      Yes, as Mitch has said: “Whatever is necessary to make Obama…” (fail) – he’s already demonstrated he’s a traitor for doing everything possible to make the president fail in times of war! Ever wonder why only Republican congresses have tried to impeach (Johnson and Clinton), or sue a president? No values at all from the Republican Party at the congressional level and above!

      • itsfun

        What kind of values did dirty Harry show when he used special rules that were designed for financial conflicts only to pass the obama care tax??

  • sleepvark

    I have a few humble suggestions for the new congress that may garner bipartisan support, along with massive public support.
    1. Legalize pot. Just take it completely out of the federal crime laws. Then tax the hell out of it. Win / win.
    2. Eliminate speed limits on federal highways. Has worked well in Germany for the last several decades. Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger, or The Freedom To Drive As Free Citizens. Anyone going slow in the fast lane goes directly to jail. We all want to go fast.
    3. Fund NASA enough to send colonists to the Moon, Mars and Saturn’s Titan. Our engineering and science people need some exciting projects, and we need to preserve the rights of the American people to go to these places without having to get permission and pay rent to China and India after they’ve staked their claims. It’s coming. Just visit any major university over there and see what they are thinking and planning.
    These simple steps will make this congress the most popular and visionary congress in US history.
    Otherwise, they will just continue to be a bunch of useless turds.

  • ExRadioGuy15

    The author forgets one simple thing: last year, Sen. McConnell was asked what he’d do if he were Majority Leader…the first thing he said was that he’d “nuke” the filibuster, so that Democrats can’t do what he and his Fascist GOP comrades did to Harry Reid since January 2007. If McConnell does, in fact, nuke the filibuster, only a simple majority vote is needed to pass a bill or move legislation along.
    There’s something else the author is forgetting: just like Speaker Boehner has to deal with the “Suicide Caucus” in the House, McConnell will have to deal with the “Ted Cruz Caucus” in the Senate. So, just as not a whole hell of a lot got done in the US House the past four years, so it will go in the US Senate, with major infighting between the GOP’s Con and Tea Party wings (with some Libertarians, like Rand Paul, thrown in there).
    The 114th Congress could be even less productive than the last two. And Harry Truman thought he had to deal with the “Do-Nothing Congress” in 1947-1948 (80th Congress)….

  • Ash Berger

    Obama’s ideology is marxism.