The Myth of the Democratic Filibuster Proof Senate

In a recent interview with Rep. Charles Rangel, conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham made a statement perpetuating a myth which has always bothered me. This myth is commonly used by Republicans to cast doubt on the efficacy of President Obama and a Democratic congress from 2009 – 2011. Here are Laura’s words:

“You had a Democratic House, a filibuster proof Senate, and the White House in Democratic hands. You had that for the first two years. You can’t blame Republicans for those two years, or can you?”

Really? Let us see if this claim is verifiable in any way.

A Rough Start

When the session of the 111th Congress began, there were 56 seated Senate Democrats and two independents who caucused with them. Senator Al Franken’s election results were being contested, so he was not seated with the rest of the newly elected Senators.

This alone disproves Laura and others’ statements about two years of a Democratically controlled filibuster proof Senate.

Inching Closer

On April 28, 2009 Senator Arlen Specter, then a Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, switched his party designation from Republican to Democrat. He stated:

“As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party.”

This move was largely viewed to be politically motivated as Specter was facing strong competition from the right by likely primary challenger Pat Toomey, as well as low approval ratings from Republicans. This technically brought the Democratic caucus in the Senate to 59 members.

Finally There

On June 30, 2009, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the election results confirming Al Franken as the winner in his Senate election race. He was sworn in to office on July 7, 2009. His addition did bring the Democratic caucus to 60 members – 185 days into the current session of congress.

49 Days

On August 25, 2009, Senator Ted Kennedy passed away as a result of brain cancer. Obviously, this dropped the Democratic caucus back below the filibuster proof 60 members, which they had enjoyed for 49 days to date.

Kennedy’s deteriorating health had increasingly limited his role and participation in Senate affairs toward the end of his life, diminishing the volume of work that Democrats might have otherwise accomplished with their nominal super-majority in the Senate.

Back to 60

Paul Kirk was appointed to fill Senator Kennedy’s vacant seat on September 24, 2009, and he was sworn in on September 25, bringing the Democratic caucus back to 60 members. Democrats would enjoy this position through the end of the year. They would use this time to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on December 24, 2009, with all Senate Republicans voting against the measure.

181 Days Total

On January 19, 2010, Republican candidate Scott Brown won the special election to fill Senator Kennedy’s vacated seat. After he was sworn in on February 4, 2010, Democrats in the Senate have never again enjoyed a filibuster proof position of power. Their total, disjointed reign lasted 181 days, or half of one year.

Clearly this is a far cry from two years of unrestricted control that was squandered away as many pundits will have you believe. Certainly Democrats missed many opportunities to push forward their agenda, largely because of moderate liberals’ objections, but they absolutely did not have two years to do so.

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