Matthew Yglesias makes a baffling claim:
There's much talk in the air right now of the need for the Democrats to get serious about blocking the most objectionable elements of the Bush agenda, but I don't think it's realistically possible. Someday, Bush may put something on the table that's sufficiently offensive to some group of moderate Republicans that they're inspired to get on the horn with Harry Reid and say, "hey, if you guys all hang together on this along with me, we can block it." If such a call is placed, the Democrats should, of course, answer the phone. But the call should not be expected, nor should the Democrats waste much time placing the converse call and canvassing moderates.
As I say, under the circumstances, the only viable path is opposition. Not obstruction, but opposition. To even try too hard at obstruction is to make it appear that Democrats have power that they do not, in fact, have. Participating in the system is a means of legitimizing it.
In the House, of course, it is true that the Democrats are generally at the mercy of the GOP leadership, but this is not the case in the Senate, where Republicans remain five votes short of filibuster-proof dominance. This is what I taught my freshmen today. So why does Matt think Democrats don't have the power of obstruction? Whether you believe they should do so or not, the procedures of the Senate certainly allow them to act as obstructionists.
A quick historical reminder: Clinton had a 57 vote majority in the Senate in 1993-1994 -- more than Republicans have today -- yet he was thwarted by filibusters or the threat of them on multiple occasions. His health care plan, for instance, would have required 60 votes to pass, which was one of the key reasons for its failure, according to James Fallows. His economic stimulus plan and campaign finance reform proposal were also defeated by filibusters.
Ultimately, the 60th most conservative (or liberal) member is pivotal in the Senate (see Keith Krehbiel's Pivotal Politics or Brady and Volden's Revolving Gridlock). Sometimes it's possible to pass legislation as part of the budget reconciliation process, which only requires 50 votes, but generally, the filibuster plays a key role in determining what legislation makes its way through Congress.
So who are the key pivot players in the Senate? The University of Houston's Keith Poole, who along with Howard Rosenthal is the currently definitive source of voting data on Congress, has provided ideological rankings of the members of the 108th Senate based on all contested votes that are useful here. The most conservative Senate Democrats returning to the 109th Congress are:
1. Ben Nelson, NE
2. Max Baucus, MT
3. Mary Landrieu, LA
4. Blanche Lincoln, AR
5. Mark Pryor, AR
6. Evan Bayh, IN
7. Tom Carper, DE
8. Kent Conrad, ND
9. Byron Dorgan, ND
10. Tim Johnson, SD
Plus Ken Salazar, the Senator-elect from Colorado, has positioned himself as a conservative Democrat.
To get 60 votes, Bush will need to get every Republican vote plus win over five Democrats, which means that the political calculus of these eleven senators will play a decisive role in shaping what legislation will pass in the next four years. But to return to Yglesias's point, if Democrats wanted to obstruct Bush's agenda and had the party discipline to do so, they could.
Update 2: Yglesias responds, saying that Republicans will exploit the budget reconciliation process to dodge filibusters, use it to create election issues for 2006, or just get rid of it entirely.
To clarify one factual issue, I didn't say the Democrats "should" filibuster everything, as Matt wrote -- I'm agnostic on the political and substantive merits of the strategy. (The obvious answer: it depends.) But I do want to point out that the filibuster is a potent political tool for any opposition party that uses it effectively; it's hardly true that the Democrats are powerless in Congress, at least in theory. The Republicans beat Clinton badly in 1993-1994 because they won the debates over most issues before they came to a vote, which caused weak-kneed moderates on both sides to become hesitant about supporting his agenda. The filibuster made those moderates crucial, and Clinton spent inordinate amounts of time trying to win their support. Without it, he probably could have pushed more legislation through on party-line votes. Over time, this deprived Clinton of legislative accomplishments and built up resentment against him that helped fuel the Republican landslide in the 1994 elections. The so-called Daschle Democrats were a different lot. They rarely defeated Bush in the court of public opinion, which left them vulnerable to charges of obstructionism and caused conservative Democrats to peel off and back the President on key votes.