The Democratic Super Majority Myth

Senator Al Franken (D-MN)

Many critics of the Obama administration often claim that the President has failed to accomplish anything even when he had a super filibuster proof majority in the Senate. Most mistakenly think that he had a sixty vote Senate for the first two years of his first term and that he squandered that opportunity. These critics are often opponents who continually remind us all, through any hot microphone available, that the President did not live up to his campaign promises as though he were supposed to keep them all at once. Others are liberals who are miffed that the President did not use the super majority to push through the items on their personal agenda.

The thing that his critics miss is that President Obama’s administration has to plan their strategy on what is achievable during a particular time frame given the circumstances of the moment. Having a filibuster proof Senate majority was only possible under a specific set of circumstances. They began in April of 2009 when Senator Arlen Specter decided to switch from a Republican to a Democrat.

Former Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA)

Specter, a long time moderate, said that he was switching back to the Democratic party because of concerns over the direction of the Republican party but conventional speculation is that he was losing in the polls for the Republican Primary to Pat Toomey for not being conservative enough. Specter wound up losing the Democratic primary anyway to Joe Sestak in 2011. But for a while, Specter was the 59th Democratic Senator.

The 60th Senator, Al Franken of Minnesota, was locked up for months in recounts and legal challenges from a very close race with incumbent Norm Coleman. Finally, on July 8, 2009 after eight months of delays, Franken was sworn in as the 60th Democratic Senator (this includes the two independents who caucused with the Democrats). This was the first time Democrats had a filibuster proof majority since 1958.

But six weeks later on August 25, 2009, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy passed away. Technically, it could be argued that the Democrats still had a filibuster proof majority since cloture involves 3/5 of sitting Senators (59 out of 99 is roughly 3/5). But the Senate was in summer recess at the time so it may not have mattered.

One month later on September 25, 2009 Paul Kirk was appointed to fill Kennedy’s vacancy while the special election was going on. Even then this was only because Kennedy himself had requested that the Governor of Massachusetts change the law a week before he died to allow an appointment so the seat wouldn’t be vacant for the remainder of the year. Had he not done so it could’ve been argued that the 60 seat Democratic supermajority would have lasted about six weeks.

In November of 2009 Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, in a poorly run campaign, lost Ted Kennedy’s seat to Republican Scott Brown effectively ensuring the end of the filibuster proof Senate.

On Christmas Eve of 2009, the Senate voted to move forward with the Health Care Reform bill by 60 to 39 votes. As Vice-President Biden noted, it was a big deal.

On February 4, 2010 Scott Brown was sworn in signaling the end of the super-majority.

Depending upon which metric is used, Democrats had a super majority for roughly six months which includes the seven weeks between Franken’s swearing-in on July 8 to Ted Kennedy’s death on August 25 and the four months and nine days between Paul Kirk’s swearing-in on September 25, 2009 to his replacement by Scott Brown on February 4, 2010. This was just barely enough time to pass the biggest and most difficult health care legislation in generations; an event that would likely never have happened under any other circumstances. This also happened under the onslaught of every procedural obstruction the Republicans could put in its path.

President Obama, against advice from many of his advisors, gambled his political capital on this bill and won. And it was a significant battle in what is sure to be a series of battles to come in order to keep the foothold on this particular beachhead. He put the brief super majority to good use and any argument that he squandered it will need to stand next to the impressive accomplishment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

About Mr. Universe

Mr. Universe is a musician/songwriter and an ex-patriot of the south. He currently lives and teaches at a University in the Pacific Northwest. He is a long distance hiker who has hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. He is also an author and woodworker. An outspoken political voice, he takes a decidedly liberal stance in politics.
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31 Responses to The Democratic Super Majority Myth

  1. mclever says:

    Good article, Mr. U. It’s easy to forget how brief the Democratic “super majority” in the Senate actually was, thus the accomplishment of passing PPACA shouldn’t be minimized.

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  3. Thanks for doing this story. I’m very fond of facts!

  4. rayspace says:

    I agree with you, but you’re wrong on Scott Brown’s election. He was elected on January 19, 2010, not November of 2009. Your point is still correct, however, if you take into account recesses. Congress was out most of August 2009, and it was out of session in late December 2009 to early January 2010.

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  6. I was under the impression (but then as a Limey interested in US politics I am probably wrong) that having sixty Senate members meant that if someone was trying to talk a bill out, the Senate Majority leader could call for a vote which would stop that debate and an immediate vote being held on the motion under discussion. Am I to understand that between 2008 and 2010, the Democrats never got to that sixty mark or have I not quite got the grasp of Senate voting practices?

  7. Mr. Universe says:

    @ Harry

    Cloture is the term you’re referring to. We don’t really talk a bill out anymore. We just threaten to do it these days (unlike in Mr. Smith goes to Washington). If the 60 vote threshold to invoke cloture and proceed to a vote isn’t met then neither side wants to sit around and listen to the phone book being read aloud into the record. It’s an archaic procedure that both parties have learned to game but Republicans have recently demonstrated a profound proclivity to abuse.

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  9. Pat Vaughn says:

    Also, let’s not forget the 62 “Blue Dog Democrats” that continually voted WITH the Republicans on too many issues.

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  11. TheSteelGeneral says:

    Yes, ConservaDems really betrayed us big time! But why have the Dems never called the Repubs bluff to filibuster? That’s weak, and it would have showed them for the irresponsible twats that they are.

  12. Michelle says:

    Reblogged this on Republican and Democrat Daily.

  13. Junco says:

    The current Congress is being dominated by the Republican majority in the House and the Republican minority in the Senate. They control and influence the legislative agenda, the public discourse, and the administration, yet the Democrats failed when they controlled both houses and the presidency. Your explanations are just a joke. Explain it away anyway you want. The reason people like me (Urban, LGBT, Progressive, Independent) are abandoning Obama, and the desperate attempts to convince voters that there are only two “real” choices for president, is because we experienced Obama’s last term. We saw exactly what you saw. We have exactly the same facts you have. We experienced that Democratically-controlled Congress. We abandon Obama because we have the facts.

    You can try to explain away the failures of Obama and Congressional Democrats. Unfortunately, we have eyes, we have ears, we have computers with search engines, we have real journalists in independent media, and this year the electorate is much more educated.

    I challenge anyone with the ability to engage in critical thinking to look at the situation and believe that the Democrats were completely powerless and that they could not have passed any major legislation with the margins they had.

    My perspective has changed. I financially supported Obama’s 2008 campaign, I volunteered and worked for his election. I voted for Obama. The reality is that he jettisoned his base of support in the early months of 2009. In the same way that George W. Bush squandered the goodwill of the world following 9/11, Obama squandered a clear mandate for change. Rather than getting “change” we got a President that promoted, signed, and enacted laws and policies that were to the right of Republicans.

  14. Marge says:

    @ Junco, Keep up the progressive narrative of history by getting Romney elected. Progress takes time or else it wouldn’t be progress, it would be domination.

  15. @Junco..A list of legislation passed during the 111th Congress from Jan29,2009 to Dec. 22,2011
    Acts of the 111th United States

    • January 29, 2009: Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-2

    • February 4, 2009: Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act (SCHIP), Pub.L. 111-3
    • February 17, 2009: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), Pub.L. 111-5
    • March 11, 2009: Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009, Pub.L. 111-8
    • March 30, 2009: Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-11
    • April 21, 2009: Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, Pub.L. 111-13
    • May 20, 2009: Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-21
    • May 20, 2009: Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-22
    • May 22, 2009: Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-23
    • May 22, 2009: Credit CARD Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-24
    • June 22, 2009: Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, as Division A of Pub.L. 111-31
    • June 24, 2009: Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2009 including the Car Allowance Rebate System (Cash for Clunkers), Pub.L. 111-32
    • October 28, 2009: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, Pub.L. 111-84
    • November 6, 2009: Worker, Home Ownership, and Business Assistance Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-92
    • December 16, 2009: Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2010, Pub.L. 111-117
    • February 12, 2010: Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act, as Title I of Pub.L. 111-139
    • March 4, 2010: Travel Promotion Act of 2009, as Section 9 of Pub.L. 111-145
    • March 18, 2010: Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act, Pub.L. 111-147
    • March 23, 2010: Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Pub.L. 111-148
    • March 30, 2010: Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, including the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, Pub.L. 111-152
    • May 5, 2010: Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-163
    • July 1, 2010: Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-195
    • July 21, 2010: Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Pub.L. 111-203
    • August 3, 2010: Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-220
    • August 10, 2010: SPEECH Act, Pub.L. 111-223
    • September 27, 2010: Small Business Jobs and Credit Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-240
    • December 8, 2010: Claims Resolution Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-291
    • December 13, 2010: Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-296
    • December 17, 2010: Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-312, H.R. 4853
    • December 22, 2010: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-321, H.R. 2965

  16. sam949 says:

    How many more will “attack” President Obama without checking the facts? The republicans, they’ll make up anything that suits what they want. What I don’t undererstand is why the democrats question him without checking facts first! I suppose it’s easier to go along with the other guy. . .

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  18. Atul says:

    @Junco, I partially agree with you that democrats and President Obama should have shown more backbone and called on Republicans to filibuster – a real fillibuster like Mr. Smith goes to Washington. I still do not understand why they don’t do it every time republicans threaten it. I hope next time, they are well prepared in anticipation and when republicans really do, they should alert media, have a you-tube account, use social media to their advantage and let republicans fillibuster.

    I am a democrat but not Obama supporter either and I also agree with you that in the name of compromise, Obama showed a tendency to ditch his base more often than republicans and in the process, got nothing in return – a case in point – extension of expiring bush tax cuts in 2010. If he had held out, in Jan/Feb even in a new congress, Republicans would have given him what he wanted – a middle class tax cut for people earning below $250K. Otherwise those republicans would have been accused of tax hikes on middle class. Obama proved that just 1 term in Senate was not enough experience. I am still hesitant to vote for him because I am not sure whether he is strong enough to deal with the republicans.

  19. Stu says:

    The facts are simple! Even mith a majority his own party wouldn’t vote for his bills. Not a bakers dozen voted for o-blunders budget. He still hasn’t even passed one and he running re-election!?!?!?!?! That is a problem folks, wake up and see that the media and people like this moron who wrote are lying to you and taking advantage of you. Stand up to these morons who try to spin things to make they’re case of failure sound like they have an excuse. Obama sucks at his job, sucks at being American, And sucks in life!

    It’s really hard when ur team is there right behind you, and you try lead them, but not one of them trust you. That my friends is failed leadership, failed in everyday possible. Get this crook out of our whitehouse, get him back to Chicago where scum like him belong.

  20. anitanet says:

    thanks for this! it puts the kebosh on one of the biggest gop talking points ever.

  21. Lrry Wndom says:

    Stu … you claim to have facts and then you go on to rant, rave and name-call. No facts, just hateful bluster. I can do that too: you are an idiot.

  22. Glenn says:

    FACTS ARE FACTS ARE FACTS: You can choose to believe them or you can be wrong. IN A FINAL EFFORT to bring to you the light, I present you, from the horse’s mouth: DO YOU BELIEVE FAUX NEWS? July 01, 2009

  23. anthony says:

    This is a Convienant excuse made for Obama but the fact remains that he DID have a Majority, not a Super majority but a Majority. A President gets over a month to prepare for the inauguration, and to formulate plans for when he takes office, so that excuse does not fly either. Add to that the fact that Democrats knew once the dust settled they woud have a super majority and therefore had time to get things together and wait to vote on things until that happened destroys all arguments as well.

  24. Jason says:

    Why haven’t they passed a budget? In what world is it impossible to balance a budget by cutting spending as Nancy Pelosi says? You can spout your facts all you like, but the policies put forth by Obama and the democrats, as well as the policies put forth by the republicans, aren’t working. You can’t tax into prosperity, that doesn’t work, and you can’t support big corporations and businesses (and by you, I mean the government). It isn’t government’s job to support one group over another. It isn’t their job to penalize people who are successful. Their job is to provide an environment that is safe for AMERICANS to prosper, or not, on their own merit. I don’t pay taxes for a government to invest MY money in failed energy venues. I can invest my own money just fine thank you very much. I fail to see how anybody can be so blind as to think that what our government is currently doing is ok. I work my tail off, and I resent being asked to pay more because I’m successful. I have what I have because of God and the gifts He gave me, not because of anything the government has done for me, but rather, in spite of what the government has done “for” me. So sit back and tell me that this turd smells better than that one. I don’t care. But I’ll have you know, you are part of the problem, and God have mercy on you when our nation crumbles around us because of it.

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  30. Carl Marks says:

    I was pointed here after I mentioning we had a super majority we did nothing with.

    it takes 50 votes to change the rules. We had all the votes we’d ever need for real change and we wasted them. Lost a supreme court seat and the presidency to dunce.

    NEVER AGAIN should be the slogan, not more excuses.

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