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Taming the Wild Cards

One of the most fascinating shows to watch for the next two years is a drama focusing on what Republicans will be able to do with their unexpectedly large 55-45 majority in the United States Senate. While most observers anticipated that Republicans would hold onto their majority, or maybe increase it by a seat or two, a four-seat gain -- halfway to a theoretical filibuster-proof majority -- was an outcome no one likely contemplated. Conservatives are already making great plans for an aggressive agenda, but whether those agenda items can win approval in the Senate remains an open question.

The challenges facing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., are quite obvious. First, he has for all practical purposes five moderate votes that, depending on the issue, can bail out on him in a minute. First in line is Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who is a charter member of what conservatives snidely call the "RINO" club: Republicans In Name Only. Then come Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine. The fifth moderate is actually a hybrid: Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio on tax and budget issues, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona on other issues. Each man is reliably conservative on enough issues that it is inaccurate to describe them as moderates, but each also strays off the reservation enough that their votes cannot often be counted on.

Making matters more difficult is the fact that, with the exception of Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, there are no true conservative Democrats left in the Senate, and only a handful of moderates: Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Bill Nelson of Florida. We must wait to see where Senators-elect Barack Obama of Illinois (who had a passable rating among business interests in the Illinois Legislature) and Ken Salazar of Colorado end up falling on the ideological scale.

The bottom line is that on tough votes, the Republican majority will not have an easy time finding Democrats to offset GOP defections. There will be none like Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia left to easily make up the difference.

Republicans have legitimate beefs with Democrats over their use and threat of the filibuster against as many as 16 of President Bush's judicial nominations. Then again, Democrats have equally legitimate arguments that Republicans started this with their refusal to hold Judiciary Committee hearings for 62 of President Clinton's nominees during his eight years in office. Both parties are guilty of selective outrage on this issue, with Republican threats to invoke the "nuclear option" foreclosing on the ability of the minority to filibuster judicial nominations potentially setting the stage for an early fight that might set the tone for the next two years.

If Specter is allowed to take over the Judiciary Committee -- not a certain outcome after he seemed to warn Bush about nominating a Supreme Court justice who would vote to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights -- he is likely to be on such a short leash that for once, the leadership might actually have some control over him. Well, maybe.

Further complicating matters is that Frist, who has had a contentious and highly problematic tenure as leader thus far, entering only his 10th year as a member of any legislative body and only the third in a leadership capacity, will be a lame duck, as both a leader and as a senator. The Tennessee senator has already announced that he would only serve two terms in the Senate. Any decisions he makes will be viewed, inevitably, in the context of his widely touted potential candidacy for president in 2008.

Indeed, as many as five or six members of the Senate Republican Conference are viewed as at least contemplating bids for the GOP presidential nomination; they are likely to cut Frist little slack.

Then again, one can expect a fairly sizable number of Senate Democrats to jockey for that party's White House nomination. With them trying to curry favor with party activists and constituency groups, the majority leader's task of trying to scrounge up enough votes to get something passed will not get any easier.

Incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is widely expected to have a better working relationship with the GOP majority than did outgoing Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Then again, the Daschle loss and the testiness of attacks, going in both directions, in South Dakota and, for that matter, in the Kentucky Senate race with Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, are likely to reverberate around the chamber for some time to come.

All in all, it is not at all clear how productive the Senate will be over the next two years. But it promises to be the most interesting show in town.

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