Thursday, October 12, 2006

How an (I) Becomes a (D) in the Senate

When people began jumping on Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in August for his "failure" to strip Joe Lieberman of his Democratic committee assignments in the wake of Joe's disloyalty to the party in Connecticut, I explained that this was not something that Reid had the power to do unilaterally because of the way Senate committees work.

Committees are put together at the start of each Congressional session, based on many meetings and an 'organizing resolution,' which is voted on in the Senate and that codifies the makeup of each committee for the two years to follow. Reid would have had to propose an amendment to that organizing resolution and get a majority vote on the Senate floor to strip Lieberman of his committees, based on Joe's new status as a turncoat Democrat.

Many readers have written to me asking why I keep including Senator-to-be Bernie Sanders, running as an Independent in Vermont, in my tally of Democratic seats when making my predictions for the balance of power we will ultimately see in the next Senate.

Here's why: Committees are formed based on the roster of Senators pledged to caucus with either Democrats or Republicans, with the committee's party distribution often based on the overall balance of power in the Senate. In other words,
while there is no mandated way of distributing committee assignments, a Senate with 60 Democratic Senators and 40 Republicans -- hey, it's a nice thought -- would likely set a committee of ten seats at six Democrats and four Republicans.

At the start of every Senate session, each Senator commits to caucus with one of the two major parties. Of course, members of each party join their own caucus, with Independents like Sanders left to commit one way or the other if they want to enjoy the political advantage of group membership.

Just as he has done in the House of Representatives, Sanders has already made it clear that he will caucus with the Democrats in the Senate so, for organizing reasons, he is considered a part of what we hope will be a Democratic majority, though he will still retain his status as an Independent.

Sanders will end up being one of the most liberal of all Senators and it's well known that he will vote with the Democrats most of the time -- and far more often than the likes of Ben Nelson (D-NE), Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Ken Salazar (D-CO).

And this dynamic has been going on in the Senate since 2001, when Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords decided that the Republican party was no longer consistent with his values and bolted from them in favor of being an Independent. This moved the Senate from a 50-50 split to 50-49-1, which sent Senate Republicans into a tailspin, made still worse when Jeffords declared that he would caucus with Democrats, making it effectively a 51-49 Democratic majority.

So that's the story. Bernie Sanders has always been his own man politically and he will be a powerful and vocal addition to the Democratic caucus when he replaces Jeffords in January. It's just tough in Congress, organizationally speaking, to be a lone wolf.

Update: I appreciate the 100 or so of you who have written asking me, as one person put it, if my "little predictions take into account the corruption that will occur on Diebold voting machines." Yes, of course, I have thought of that and to all of you asking, yours is hardly an original thought on the subject. But that's all just a little difficult to include in a prediction, considering that the "corruption factor," while obviously present, cannot be clearly defined.

But if it will stop this question from coming, I will give you my prediction of the Senate's composition after the elections this year, 2008 and 2010 based on the emerging presence of GOP/Diebold voting machines: 100-0, Republican controlled. There. Feel better now?