Alan I. Abramowitz has a post at Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball that should be required reading for Democratic Senate Leadership. Abramowitz, senior editor at the Crystal Ball and a TDS contributor, makes a tight case that the time has come for Democrats to change Senate rules, so America will no longer be held hostage by the filibuster. First, he sets the stage, reviewing Democratic prospects for overcoming the filibuster under current rules
…While Democrats have a good chance of retaining control of the Senate in the next two election cycles, their majority is almost certain to be reduced.
In 2010 Republicans will be defending 19 of the 38 seats that are up for election so their opportunities for gains will be limited. In 2012, however, Republicans will have a much better chance to recoup some of the losses that they suffered in the 2006 and 2008 elections because Democrats will have to defend 24 of the 33 seats that will be up for election.
The results of the 2010 and 2012 Senate elections will depend on the national political climate when those elections take place. In the long run, however, Democrats will probably find it very difficult to maintain anything close to a 60-seat majority in the Senate. Since the end of World War II, Senate majorities of 60 or larger have been unusual and the current 60-seat Democratic majority represents a sharp break with the recent pattern of relatively small majorities. While Democrats now enjoy an edge in party identification in the electorate, their advantage among regular voters is fairly small. Moreover, at least 22 of the 60 Democratic Senate seats would appear to be highly vulnerable. Democrats currently hold 11 Senate seats in states that were carried by the Republican Party in all three presidential elections since 2000 as well as 11 seats in states that were carried by the Republicans in two of these three elections. In contrast, Republicans hold only two seats in states that were carried by the Democratic Party in all three presidential elections and only two additional seats in states that were carried by the Democrats in two of these elections.
Abramowitz explains further that the “small state bias” favors Republicans since Dems are disproportionately concentrated in major urban areas in the large states. Dems do currently hold 11 of 24 seats of the 12 small states, Abramowitz notes, but this is likely to diminish in the next elections. He then concludes:
A reduced Democratic majority will make it almost impossible to invoke cloture. This leaves progressive Democrats with two options: try to build bipartisan coalitions or change the Senate’s rules. Bipartisanship is very popular with many Washington political insiders. However, given the deep ideological divide that separates the two parties, bipartisanship is simply not a viable option in today’s Senate. In a Senate with a narrow Democratic majority, the swing vote on cloture would not be moderate Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe. It would be someone like conservative Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. In order to gain enough Republican votes to invoke cloture, progressive Democrats would have to abandon many of their key policy commitments.
A reduced Democratic majority would leave only one viable option for progressives to save their policy agenda: change the Senate’s rules to end the filibuster. Short of a constitutional amendment, nothing can be done about the small state, Republican bias of the Senate. But the Senate’s rules can be changed by a simple majority vote. All it takes is the political will to drag the Senate kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Clearly this is a challenge that must be met by reform-minded Democrats sooner, than later — or we may not get another chance for decades.