The Myth of the Filibuster-Proof Democratic Senate

Republicans have magically, mystically turned 72 days into two full years.

We’ve heard it over and over and over again.  Mitch McConnell has gleefully used it as a cudgel.  Congressional Republicans typically can’t wait to get their mugs on camera to tell America just how inept Congressional Democrats are in order to aid their case that they should be put back in power.  After all, Democrats couldn’t get anything done even with a 60 vote, filibuster-proof majority in the United States Senate during the first two years of the Obama administration.  Democrats had almost complete control of the Congress to go with the newly inaugurated Democrat to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and they couldn’t manage to address the major issues of the day.

Democrats are just plain horrible at their jobs.  To hear the Republicans tell it, absolutely nothing got done between January 2009 and the 2010 midterm elections.  And they blame the Democrats, because after all, the Democrats were in control.

Don’t believe it.

It sounds good and it surely gets the far right wing base riled up.  But it has very little basis in reality.  That hasn’t stopped Republicans and their official media apparatus, Fox News, from repeating the nonsense.

As recently as September 2nd, less than two weeks ago, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, conducting an interview with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, stated matter of factly in response to Villaraigosa’s comment on the deliberate Republican obstructionism that Obama and the Democrats had almost complete control of the Congress.  “But in fairness,” Wallace pointed out, “the first two years, he had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a big majority in the House.”

Illinois Republican Congressman Aaron Schock earlier in 2012 went on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and perpetuated the lie.  “For two years,” he told the “Morning Joe” crew, “he (Obama) had complete, unadulterated control of the federal government, a 60 seat majority in the Senate, an 60 plus seat majority in the House.  He got every—literally every—piece of legislation he wanted to try and quote turn around the economy…”

That’s right folks, for the first two full years of his presidency, Barack Obama had the benefit of a large majority in the House of Representatives and a filibuster-proof majority in the United States Senate to work with in order to get whatever legislation passed that he wanted.  Whatever his whimsy, he could get it passed at any time during the first two years of his first term.  Full and complete, total control for two full years, if by two full years you mean 72 days.

Here’s what really happened:  Yes, in the 2008 election, Democrats managed to widen their majorities in both houses of Congress.  In the 110th Congress that served from January 2007 through January 2009, Democrats held a 35 seat majority in the House and a single seat advantage in the Senate, which included “independent” Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, both of whom caucused with the Democrats.  The 2008 election saw that majority swell to 78 seats in the House and nine seats in the Senate.

How is that possible, you ask?  Everybody says that the Democrats had a full filibuster-proof majority?  The math doesn’t add up, you say.  If there are 100 seats in the Senate, and Republicans, as of January 2009 had only 40 of them (technically the Republicans had 41 of them initially, but we’ll get to that), doesn’t that mean that the Democrats had the remaining 60, giving them the supermajority in the Senate?

No, not necessarily, because it was a very odd year in Congressional politics.

Remember that Minnesota Senatorial election in 2008?  The one that pitted former SNL writer/cast member and Air America Radio host Al Franken against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman?  That race dragged on forever, resulting in several challenges and recounts until the Minnesota Supreme Court finally concluded on June 30th, 2009, that Franken was indeed the winner.  Franken wasn’t sworn into office until July 7th, 2009, a full six months after the 111th Congress had taken charge.

And it wasn’t even that easy.  Even had Franken been seated at the beginning of the legislative session, the Democrats still would only have had a 59-41 seat edge.  It wasn’t until late April of 2009 that Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter defected from the Republican Party to caucus with the Democrats.  Without Franken, the Dems only had 58 votes.

But even that’s not entirely accurate, and the Dems didn’t have a consistent, reliable 58 votes.  Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy was terminally ill with a brain tumor, and could only muster up the energy to vote on selected legislation.  His presence could not be counted on, and thus his vote in the Senate could not be counted on.  During the first year of the Obama presidency, due to his illness Kennedy missed 261 out of a possible 270 votes in the Senate, denying the Democrats the 60th vote necessary to break a filibuster.  In March of 2009, he stopped voting altogether.  It wasn’t until Kennedy passed away in late August, 2009, and an interim successor was named on September 24th, 2009, that the Democrats actually had 60 votes.

And even then the 60 vote supermajority was tenuous at best.  At the time, then 91 year old Robert Byrd from West Virginia was in frail health.  During the last 6 months of 2009, Byrd missed 128 of a possible 183 votes in the Senate.  Byrd passed away on June 28, 2010 at the age of 92.

In all, Democrats had a shaky 60 vote supermajority for all of four months and one week; from the time Kennedy’s interim successor Paul Kirk was sworn in on September 24th until the time Republican Scott Brown was sworn in as Kennedy’s “permanent” replacement after his special election victory over Democratic disappointment, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.  In a state that is heavily Democratic, it seems that Coakley figured she didn’t have to actually campaign for the Senate seat; that Massachusetts voters would automatically elect the Democrat to replace the legendary Kennedy.  No way Massachusetts would send a Republican to replace Ted Kennedy.  Brown took the election seriously, Coakley did not, and Brown won (he will, however, lose this November to Elizabeth Warren, and all will be right with the world again).

During those four months and one week, Congress was in session for a total of 72 days.  So for 72 days the Democrats held a 60 seat, filibuster-proof supermajority in the United States Senate.  But wait!  There’s more!  As Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn points out, even that was unreliable.  “Even in this window Obama’s ‘control’ of the Senate was incomplete and highly adulterated due to the balkiness of the so-called Blue Dog conservative and moderate Democratic Senators such as Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.”

Zorn continues:

The claim that Obama ruled like a monarch over Congress for two years — endlessly intoned as a talking point by Republicans — is more than just a misremembering of recent history or excited overstatement. It’s a lie.

It’s meant to represent that Obama’s had his chance to try out his ideas, and to obscure and deny the relentless GOP obstructionism and Democratic factionalism he’s encountered since Day One.

They seem to figure if they repeat this often enough, you’ll believe it.

Seventy-two days.  That’s it.  That’s the entirety of absolute Democratic control of the United States Senate in 2009 and 2010.  And yet Republicans want America to believe that Obama and the Democrats ruled with a tyrannical zeal to pass every piece of frivolous legislation they could conjure up.  They think that the voters are dumb enough to believe it.

Given the mendacity of the Republican presidential ticket this year, it appears that they think very little of the intelligence of the American electorate, and are merely perpetuating a disturbing pattern of behavior on the part of Republican lawmakers, who have a very loose relationship with truth and the real world.  And that includes their official PR apparatus, Fox News.  We’ll find out on November 6th if they’re right.

All of this and we didn’t even talk about the unprecedented, deliberate, methodical obstructionism on the part of Republicans via the filibuster.  Tsk, tsk, tsk…..


Andy Cohen

Andy spent 15 years working in the highest levels of the San Diego professional sports world, including both the Padres and the Chargers. He began his foray into writing while a volunteer for Francine Busby's 2010 Congressional campaign, eventually becoming a contributor to the now defunct SDNN. He has reported on local and national politics for both the OB Rag and the San Diego Free Press. When not reporting news and events, he offers political and policy commentary from a liberal perspective, occasionally turning back to his sports roots. While he does not hide his more liberal political bent, Andy always strives for fairness in the telling of a story.


  1. avatarJohn Lawrence says

    The Republican tactic of delay, delay, delay also figures into it. Legislation wasn’t always ready to be voted on for many of those 72 days. Republicans delayed the passage of the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank. The Affordable Care Act was delayed to the point that it was not filibuster proof. It only got passed by reconciliation.

  2. avatarbob dorn says

    It seems to me that not quite enough attention is paid to the Blue Dogs of the House Democratic delegation who for years have obstructed the programs of the party they claim they belong to. The more centrist leadership should have been making it painful for these Southerners to leave the farm and join the Republicans so easily and frequently, thus blunting the function of majority rule. Over in the Senate, just remember, there was not just Lieberman, who once was blessed by the party leadership as its Vice Presidential candidate (didn’t we lose that election?) and Ben Nelson, but also Max Baucus who sold out the party during budget negotiations. Plenty of individual screws in the Democratic Party see themselves as above and beyond the party and, hence, their partners in legislation.

    • avatarRB says

      Damn those ‘Blue Dogs’ that put the taxpayers, future generations, and the good of all Americans above the Democratic Party.

      • avatarcool youth says

        That’s our big tent of diversity at work. Like America should be. How’s it feel to be held hostage by a handful of Wackos. Republicans need to grow some balls and support “their own” ideas! smh.

  3. avatarSteve says

    Good article and thanks for outlining all of that. I do find the “72 days” description as a bit fallacious. It was four months and one week. If you’re comparing the lie of “for the first 2 years of his presidency” you need to speak in the same metric.

  4. avatarbtomm says

    yawn… congress as victims once again… as if they had no say-so in their own schedules. they take more vacations and off days in a year than most people get in 20 years.

  5. avatarJeff says

    Democrats and liberals can find endless excuses to justify their incompetence. Whether or not it was filibuster proof or even a super majority, they had a majority in both the House and Senate for two years. Had they addressed issues with the economy, corporate welfare and tax codes, outsourcing, abuse of welfare at the poverty level, and so on during that time instead of passing a multi trillion dollar tax bill in Healthcare, perhaps they wouldnt have the target on their back. But quite simply, they chose to push a tax bill rather than fix the issues at hand during their reign. EPIC FAIL!

    Republicans had control of all three branches for 4 years under Bush. We got the Dept of Homeland Security and the Patriot act from them.

    Both parties suck. Stop choosing either of them, its a scam and they’ve been pulling it for decades!