A fleeting, illusory supermajority

Updated
Their majority was smaller than some remember.
Their majority was smaller than some remember.
Associated Press

It’s in Republicans’ interest right now to characterize the Democrats’ congressional majority in 2009 and 2010 as enormous. As the argument goes, President Obama could get literally anything he wanted from Congress in his first two years, so Democrats don’t have any excuses.

The stimulus wasn’t big enough? Blame Dems; they had supermajorities in both chambers for two years. There’s no comprehensive immigration reform? Blame Dems; they had supermajorities in both chambers for two years. There was only one big jobs bill? Blame Dems; they had supermajorities in both chambers for two years. And so on.

The right continued to push the line over the weekend.

Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace falsely claimed Democrats had a 60-vote Senate majority for the first 2 years of his presidency.

“For the first 2 years he had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate,” Wallace told LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, making the case that Obama has only himself to blame for his poor economic record.

I realize memories can be short in the political world, and 2010 seems like a long time ago, but it’s unnerving when professionals who presumably keep up with current events are this wrong. Even if various pundits lost track of the specific details, I’d at least expect Fox News hosts to remember Sen. Scott Brown’s (R) special-election win in Massachusetts.

Since memories are short, let’s take a brief stroll down memory lane, giving Wallace a hand with the recent history he’s forgotten.

In January 2009, there were 56 Senate Democrats and two independents who caucused with Democrats. This combined total of 58 included Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose health was failing and was unable to serve. As a practical matter, in the early months of Obama’s presidency, the Senate Democratic caucus had 57 members on the floor for day-to-day legislating.

In April 2009, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter switched parties. This meant there were 57 Democrats, and two independents who caucused with Democrats, for a caucus of 59. But with Kennedy ailing, there were still “only” 58 Democratic caucus members in the chamber.

In May 2009, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was hospitalized, bringing the number of Senate Dems in the chamber down to 57.

In July 2009, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) was finally seated after a lengthy recount/legal fight. At that point, the Democratic caucus reached 60, but two of its members, Kennedy and Byrd, were unavailable for votes.

In August 2009, Kennedy died, and Democratic caucus again stood at 59.

In September 2009, Sen. Paul Kirk (D-Mass.) filled Kennedy’s vacancy, bringing the caucus back to 60, though Byrd’s health continued to deteriorate.

In January 2010, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) replaced Kirk, bringing the Democratic caucus back to 59 again.

In June 2010, Byrd died, and the Democratic caucus fell to 58, where it stood until the midterms. [Update: Jonathan Bernstein reminds me that Byrd’s replacement was a Dem. He’s right, though this doesn’t change the larger point.]

Wallace believes the Dems’ “filibuster proof majority in the Senate” lasted 24 months. In reality, he’s off by 20 months, undermining the entire thesis pushed so aggressively by Republicans.

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A fleeting, illusory supermajority

Updated