How long has it been? You have to go all the way back to 1937 to find the last American President who enjoyed what was, in practice, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, according to Senate Associate Historian Donald Ritchie. That was when Franklin D. Roosevelt, having just won what was then the biggest re-election victory in history, permanently alienated Southern Democrats by trying to “pack” the Supreme Court with the addition of two more justices.
From then until the late 1980s, the two parties in the Senate were too fractious internally to really function as a filibuster-proof majority. (For much of that time, it took a two-thirds vote to overcome a filibuster; in 1975, the Senate changed its rule so that it could cut off debate if 60 Senators voted to do so.) In Jimmy Carter’s first term, for instance, there were more than 60 Democrats in the Senate. However, conservatives such as James Allen of Alabama often voted more to the right than their Republican colleagues, while there were liberal Republicans such as New York’s Jacob Javits who rarely sided with their own party.
So in practice, it was almost like there were four parties in the Senate, where lawmakers aligned as much by ideology as by partisan identification. Not until Ronald Reagan’s day did the two parties start voting again in a cohesive bloc–and begin to give the President more partisan leverage, says Ritchie.
With Arlen Specter’s switch (and assuming, as Joe notes below, that Al Franken ever gets sworn in), Barack Obama has the Magic 60 Votes — and an opportunity that his predecessors would greatly have envied. But we are, after all, still talking about the Senate; it will never vote in lockstep. The dynamic now shifts. The two women Senators from Maine may not be quite so much the center of attention as they were during the stimulus bill debate. Where Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will have to keep their focus is on their own right flank. I suspect Ben Nelson will be getting a lot more TLC.