Simple logic suggests that it’s better to have more votes than fewer. A larger caucus makes it easier to push legislation and allows certain members to defect from their party in the face of constituent opposition or re-election considerations. The conventional wisdom coming out of the 2010 midterms has been that Democrats will have a harder time passing their agenda. Obviously, the House is no longer under their control, and the loss of six Senate seats, it seems, bolsters the hand of Mitch McConnell and his Republican ranks. Counter-intuitively, however, there is reason to wonder whether Harry Reid and Senate Democrats will have an easier time legislating in the 112th Congress than they did in the 111th.

When the Democrats came into the last Congress, bolstered by gains in the 2008 elections, they possessed majorities larger than either party had enjoyed in recent years. With President Obama in the White House, pundits were anticipating a New Deal-like wave of policy that would quickly move through the Congress, producing the “change” that voters seemed to be clamoring for.  We now know that things didn’t quite work out so easily for Democrats, especially on the Senate side. The reality, which few liberals seemed to recognize at the time, was that the Senate was being asked to play a role for which it is unsuited—that of a swift, efficient, legislative body. Ironically, with Democrats possessing the magical 60 votes to cut off Republican filibusters—and then 59 seats after the election of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown—a dynamic soon developed that actually made legislating much more tedious and unpredictable. A big majority did not guarantee success. 

In fact, it proved to be a curse for liberal aims. 

Under McConnell, Republican Senate strategy became akin to siege mentality. Without any chance of obstructing the Democratic agenda on the House side, given its rules that heavily favor the majority, it was only in the Senate that Republicans could thwart the Democratic agenda. Senate Republicans became the last line of defense. Thus, McConnell successfully unified his caucus with only isolated defections. Health care reform dragged on months longer than Democrats hoped; financial services reform proved more difficult; other Democratic legislation was abandoned altogether.

On the other side of the aisle, individual Democratic senators found their positions bolstered. Because of the need to keep Democrats unified to counter this robust Republican opposition, every Democratic  senator found that they alone could determine what legislation moved forward. When Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, or any of a number of moderate to conservative Democrats had reservations about a bill, the Senate ground to a halt as Reid sought the right mix of concessions to bring the recalcitrant Democrat of the moment back on the reservation. Other times, those Senators on the left could withhold their support if they felt too many concessions were being made to moderates. To the dismay of liberals across the country, this played into the hands of Republicans’ goal of halting the advance of the Obama/Reid/Pelosi agenda.

With the Democrats’ losses in November, however, it appears as if this necessity of legislating on a razor’s edge is about to end.  Democrats no longer have any expectation of getting sixty votes without sizable Republican support.  Any bill that can get these votes will probably have quite a bit of popular support, making Republican opposition perilous, and lessening the chance that there will be conservative Democratic holdouts. 

For liberal Senate Democrats this movement to the center will be a source of frustration, but given Republican control of the House, there can be no expectation that their agenda would advance on the other side of the capitol. With this Republican control the House, their GOP Senate colleagues will no longer feel that they are the last line of defense against the Democratic tide like they did in the last Congress.  This may serve to free up some Republican moderates to vote with the Democrats depending on the issue.  We’ve already seen how this might play out with the recent repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Whereas most of the attention in the 111th Congress was on Senators Nelson, Lieberman, Lincoln, and Landrieu, we may see Republicans like Snowe, Collins, Lugar, and Brown the objects of much wooing this time around. Finally, Senate Democrats don’t need to copy the Republican strategy from the last Congress. They aren’t the last line of defense against Republicans’ efforts at rolling back the Democratic gains of the past two years. The White House will play that role, giving Reid the ability to shield vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in 2012.      

Thus, Harry Reid might find the prospects of leading a smaller caucus more appealing than a larger one.  To use the old adage, there are fewer cats to herd.  With lower expectations come potential opportunities.  A more fluid set of coalitions may emerge out of the new Senate membership.

The legislation that will inevitably come out of the Senate will be more centrist and more incremental. This is a reality that liberals and conservatives are advised to prepare themselves for. However, whereas those on the left spent the past two years bemoaning the Senate, they may find themselves praising it over the next two, taking delight as Tea Partiers and House conservatives rail against the upper chamber’s unwillingness to ratify most of their agenda.

No doubt Reid relishes the prospect of this.