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Republicans Fear The Loss of Their Only Weapon Left: The Filibuster

Rupert Cornwell in Washington

Democrat Senator Strom Thurmond mounted a 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster against the Civil Rights Bill. (GETTY)

It is the about the last, the most overblown but perhaps the most
potent argument John McCain has left. Elect me, he tells voters, or
watch the Democrats gain a hammerlock on Congress and plunge the
country into socialism.

A week tomorrow, not one but 471 elections of national importance are held in
the US. Americans are choosing not only a president but also all 435 members
of the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 senators. And the factors
sweeping Barack Obama towards victory may also put the Democrats in a more
powerful position on Capitol Hill than any party in a generation.

If he wins, not only would they control the White House, but also both houses
of Congress, and by expanded margins. Most important, in the Senate they
might reach the magic number of 60 seats required to override a filibuster
and thus deprive Republicans of their one remaining weapon, their ability to
talk to death legislation they oppose.

Democrats would then be able to do exactly as they please, Mr McCain warns his
audiences, is that what you want? "But that is exactly what's going to
happen if our opponents have total control of Washington. We can't let that

"Are you ready for Obama, Pelosi and Reid?" he asks, invoking the
spectres of a president who had the most liberal voting record of any
senator, of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, product of arch-liberal San
Francisco, and of Harry Reid, who has been a highly partisan leader of the
Senate during the past two years, when Democrats have had only a threadbare
51-49 majority. Mr McCain may be exaggerating the ideological threat to the
American way of life, but the threat to the Republicans on Capitol Hill
could not be more real. Most analysts now predict that, in the House alone,
Democrats could pick up between 15 and 25 seats - in some cases because of
the predicted surge in black turnout because of Mr Obama - reinforcing their
solid, existing majority of 236 to 199.

But in practice, that will not make much difference, given the strict
procedural rules that tie a minority's hand. In the Senate, it is a
different story. It is the Republicans' bad luck in 2008 to have to defend
23 of the 35 seats up for grabs in the toughest climate for the party since
Watergate. The Republican brand has been discredited by a desperately
unpopular President, and now by the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.

Of those Republican-held seats, three - in Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado -
seem all but certain to change hands. In four more, including Minnesota
where the author and comedian Al Franken is challenging the incumbent
Republican Norm Coleman, the Democratic candidate is ahead. Even in reliably
Republican Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has
suddenly found himself in a dogfight (although the odds are Mr McConnell
will survive). If the Democrats are to get to 60 (or even 59 which in
practice might be enough) everything hinges on three other races that are
statistical dead heats, according to the polls: in Georgia, Mississippi and

Washington DC famously does not have a vote in Congress. But in the next day
or so, 12 good citizens of the District could conceivably reshape the face
of national politics, as a federal jury here considers its verdict in the
trial of Alaska's Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate.

The 83-year-old Stevens, lord of his state's politics for decades, is seeking
a seventh six-year term next Tuesday. If he is acquitted on corruption
charges, he will surely be re-elected. But his conviction probably would
cost the Republicans the seat, and with it their hopes of being able to
mount a filibuster.

Even without Mr Steven's legal predicament, everything was favouring the
Democrats. Under any circumstances, this would be a horrendously difficult
year for Republicans. But in addition, thanks to Mr Obama's protracted
primary battle with Hillary Clinton, he has strong ground organisations in
states across the country. These can help local Democrats running for
Congress. His campaign has registered hundreds of thousands of new voters,
and is flush with money.

So Mr McCain is largely pinning his hopes on the argument that Democrats
should not be allowed to sweep all before them, gambling on the historical
fondness of American voters for divided government, and their reluctance to
hand unchecked power to one party.

That reluctance is understandable. Invariably, a party that has controlled
both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue has over-reached, even without a
filibuster-proof Senate majority, which last happened between 1977 and 1979,
the first two years of Jimmy Carter's unhappy presidency. In the early
1990s, during the first Clinton administration, Democrats controlled White
House and Congress, only to come a cropper in the mid-term elections of
1994. For most of the first six years of George W Bush, Republicans were in
the same position. But they too over-reached, and nemesis duly arrived at
the November 2006 midterms.

The problem, for Mr McCain is that, in this moment of real crisis, strong
unified government may be what Americans want. A Washington Post poll found
that, by a 50-30 margin, voters would now prefer one party (ie, the
Democrats) to control both the executive and legislative branches.

And as America, by its standards, moves to the left, maybe "socialism"
is exactly what they are looking for: a more activist government, higher
taxes for the rich and a stronger social safety net for the poor, more
regulations on financial markets and something that approximates to
universal health care.

Art of the filibuster: Talking legislation to death

*A filibuster, which comes from a Dutch word meaning "pirate",
allows a senator to prevent a vote on the floor by speaking for as long as
he or she wishes on a topic of his or her choosing. Politicians have been
known to recite Shakespeare or read out recipes to pass the time.

In 1917, senators adopted Rule 22 to override a filibuster. Debate on proposed
legislation would move to vote with the backing of two-thirds of the
chamber, a device known as "cloture". The first outing for the new
rule came in 1919, when the Senate invoked cloture to end a filibuster
against the Treaty of Versailles.

The record for the longest filibuster has been held for more than half a
century. In 1957, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina talked for 24 hours and
18 minutes, helping to successfully block the Civil Rights Act.

In 1975, the number of votes required to break the filibuster was cut from
two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 of the 100 senators. If the Democrats do
as well as some project, they could have those 60 votes within their own
ranks and deprive the Republicans of their one remaining weapon, talking to
death legislation they oppose.

Up for grabs: The battlegrounds

*House of Representatives

Democrats 236 seats

Republicans 199 seats

All 435 seats are up for grabs and the Democrats are expected to increase
their majority by between 15 and 25 seats


Democrats 51 seats

Republicans 49 seats

Votes will be cast for 35 of the 100 seats on 4 November. The Republicans are
defending 23 of those and at least three seem certain to change hands. If
the Democrats can get to 60, then they could stop any Republican attempt at
a filibuster.

10 Days to go

Obama 50.4%

McCain 42.6%


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