Republicans gnashed their teeth in frustration as the national tide of GOP resurgence washed up against the massive Democratic fortresses in Nevada, Washington state, Colorado and California. When they neither toppled nor faltered, most conservatives resigned themselves to a divided Congress with the Republican House and the Democratic Senate forever at war.
Not so. The vote on the extension of the Bush tax cuts reveals that the Republican Party has, in fact, gained effective control of the U.S. Senate. We are facing the same situation Ronald Reagan confronted in 1980 when his revolution brought him control of the Senate, but left the House under the nominal reign of Tip O'Neill and the Democrats. But, in fact, as the new president soon discovered, the House Democratic majority was subservient to the tide that had swept the Senate. Terrified by the Republican sweep, the Democrats were unable to muster a coherent opposition in the chamber they controlled. So it will be in 2011.
The Democrats will keep the corner offices in the Russell, Dirksen and Hart Senate office buildings and retain their committee chairmanships, but their ability to summon a majority to sustain their president on crucial votes is gone. The defection of Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut indicates that the 53-47 Democratic tilt of the Senate is more apparent than real.
Webb, Nelson, Manchin and Lieberman are all up for re-election in 2012. Each is very good at reading the handwriting on the wall left by Sens. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., Evan Bayh, D-Ind., Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Arlen Specter, D-Pa., Bob _Bennett, R-Utah, and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., on their way out the door. It reads, "The conservatives are coming!"
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could well afford to lose four votes while he controlled the Senate 58-42, but he can ill afford four defections when his margin is only three. And Sens. Nelson, Jon Tester, D-Mont., Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. -- all from red states and all facing close re-election battles -- cannot be far behind these four in considering periodic abandonment of the ship on key votes. Only the likelihood of retirement saves Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., from a similar fate. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Herb Kohl, D-Wis., Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., also vulnerable in 2012, probably think they can ride out the tide in their more Democratic states. (And in any event, Brown, Stabenow and Menendez are too liberal to notice what has just happened.)