Sixty votes is doable — if Democrats govern from the center

When Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) easily won reelection in a runoff earlier this week, he repeated the bill of goods he had sold the voters all along. He has single-handedly stopped the Democrats from acquiring the 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority that would have given them a stranglehold on the Congress.

“You have delivered tonight a strong message to the world that conservative Georgia values matter,” said Chambliss after his blowout 60-40 victory Tuesday night. “You have delivered a message that a balance of government in Washington is necessary, and that's not only what the people of Georgia want, but what the people of America want.”

It would be nice if it were true. But Chambliss know it’s not, and that there will be a handful of Republicans for President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to choose from when shopping for 60 votes. The Republicans who will join with Democrats are moderate and independent and abhor partisanship and gridlock; they have long awaited the day when major initiatives could reach a vote on the Senate floor without a filibuster preventing even their consideration.

The list of these GOP traitors to partisanship begins with the recently defeated Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). McCain is running for reelection in 2010 and it’s a sure bet he will be running once again as the independent, bipartisan dealmaker, and not the tax-cutting savior of Joe the Plumber. The list, which has shrunken as moderates in the party have retired and lost reelection, also includes Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and the senators from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Collins was just reelected handily precisely because she had crossed President Bush and her leaders many times to work on bipartisan initiatives. Finally, add to the list a rotating list of senators running for reelection that is now and then likely to include Sens. George Voinovich and Kit Bond, from the swing states of Ohio and Missouri, respectively.

The issues expected to generate bipartisan support are immigration, funding for stem cell research, increasing funding for the State Children's Health Insurance Program, presidential nominations and other healthcare initiatives such as a plan to allow the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices on prescription drugs.

Should Obama and the Democrats abandon the center and overreach, they are likely to fall far short of 60 votes as more conservative Democrats like Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Warner of Virginia could leave the reservation. There are fault lines already on major issues for Democrats — on Iraq, on auto industry restrictions, healthcare, legislation unions are seeking and on trade. And one can imagine that there will be many issues on which the GOP hangs together. Bailout fever, perhaps?

Yet no matter the vote, President Obama will be able to come armed with carrots for Republican and Democratic senators alike. And Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee a couple cycles ago, knows just what politicians need to get reelected in every state in the union. That is something Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who just went from a stiff reelection challenge to becoming the most senior Republican in the land, is well aware of. With his party defending 19 seats two years from now, another tough year in which Democrats stand to pick up their actual 60 votes, McConnell is facing a long time in the minority, without many sticks.

When the going gets rough, maybe McConnell can call on Chambliss to bring those conservative Georgia values to the U.S. Senate and help keep the troops in line.