Can Democrats line up enough votes to confirm Bernanke? 

President Barack Obama announced last August he would nominate Ben Bernanke to serve another term as Federal Reserve Chairman. In the last week, since Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate election, senators of both parties have loudly announced they would oppose his nomination. Stock markets took a dive at the end of last week largely because (or so stock market observers told us -- plausibly, I think) of doubts that Bernanke would be confirmed. His term as chairman ends January 31, and the prospect of the Fed having no confirmed chairman certainly could be unsettling to players in the financial markets. 

This is one of those issues (like the votes on TARP in September and October 2008) in which the White House must call on members of both parties with safe seats to vote for a bill or nomination which could easily be demagogued by political opponents of both parties. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s failure to line up many safe-seat Democrats (especially from her home state of California) resulted in TARP failing in the House on September 29, with disastrous results in the financial markets. The Senate passed a somewhat different TARP bill on October 1, and the House—with Pelosi this time whipping some of her safe-seat members—passed it on October 3. 

The Bernanke nomination is a matter for the Senate only, and as of late Tuesday night the Wall Street Journal counted 51 senators in favor (38 Democrats including Independent Joseph Lieberman and 13 Republicans) and 19 senators against (6 Democrats including Independent Bernie Sanders and 13 Republicans). Undeclared or undecided or non-committed were 30 senators (16 Democrats and 14 Republicans). It’s generally assumed that 60 votes are needed for confirmation, and this means that the White House will be pressing the Senate Democratic leadership for 9 more Democratic votes. They’ll be pressing the Republican leadership for votes too, but since Democrats hold the White House and the Senate majority they know they’ll be held accountable if financial markets tank because of a rejection of Bernanke. Do the Democrats have nine safe-seat currently undecided senators to deliver? Let’s look at those currently on the fence, at least according to their public pronouncements. 

Mark Begich (Alaska) He owes his seat to what Attorney General Eric Holder has conceded was an unjust prosecution of the man he beat, 40-year Republican incumbent Ted Stevens. In fairness, that prosecution was undertaken by the Bush Justice Department; Holder and his Democratic appointees had no part in it. Alaska is a heavily Republican state, and so Begich holds anything but a safe seat. But he is not up for reelection until 2014. By that time his Bernanke vote will probably be history. My guess is that Begich is a reluctant Bernanke vote, but can be pressed to back him if his vote is needed. The argument that the financial system will collapse unless he votes for him will probably be persuasive to a guy who until recently was mayor of Anchorage. 

Roland Burris (Ill.) He was controversially appointed by disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich and is not seeking reelection; Illinois holds its primary on February 2, so he is the lamest of lame ducks. But will the argument that the financial system will collapse without his vote weigh on him? He’s going back to Chicago and doesn’t owe anybody anything. My guess is that the Democratic leadership, including Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who at one point tried to stop him from being seated, is stumped about how to bring him along. The wildest of wild cards. 

Robert Byrd (W.V.) He is 92, ailing, a strong partisan these days but an even stronger believer in what he believes are the constitutional prerogatives of the Senate. Reelected to his eighth term in 2006, he is beyond electoral calculations. The leadership must proceed tactfully with him, but I’ll bet they get his vote. 

Maria Cantwell (Wash.) Reelected in 2006 from a Democratic-leaning state, she looks like a safe-seat vote for Bernanke. She probably doesn’t want to antagonize Washington’s high-tech sector; the Seattle area provides all of her winning margins. But does she want to embarrass her Washington colleague, Patty Murray, who is up for reelection this year and who is also listed as undecided? Senators of the same party from the same state are often competitors for public favor, jealous and edgy of each other. I’m guessing she’s a gettable vote for the leadership, but in a quiet way and perhaps at the last minute. 

Bob Casey (Pa.) Elected in 2006 by a wide margin over incumbent Rick Santorum, he looked like he has a long Senate career ahead of him. But Pennsylvania political numbers don’t look so favorable for him, and his political base is working-class ethnics in his home town of Scranton and similar burnt-out factory towns—not the natural constituency for a Fed chairman. But he’s been a pretty reliable vote for the Democratic leadership, and I bet he goes along. 

Al Franken (Minn.) Franken didn’t run in 2008 to be a reliable vote for a Republican free market economist to get another four-year term as Fed chairman. He was seated after a protracted election contest in July 2009 and was the 60th Democratic vote until Massachusetts voted for Scott Brown last week. My guess is that the Democratic leadership leans really hard to Franken for his vote; he’s not up for reelection In 2014, and in a state that has leaned Democratic in most of the years since 1948. 

Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) She’s now got loud 2010 primary competition from former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., and she trails former Governor George Pataki in general election polls by a wide margin. But in her brief Senate career she’s followed (slavishly, says Ford) the advice of her senior colleague Charles Schumer, who is anything but inattentive to New York’s financial services industry. He’s a member of the leadership and has announced for Bernanke. If he can’t bring her along—with the promise of who knows how much campaign cash—he’s not a smart politician, and there aren’t many political observers who think Schumer is not a smart politician. He may let her vote no if Bernanke has the votes otherwise, but if he needs her for 60 my bet is he’s got her. 

Ted Kaufman (Del.) He was appointed to serve two years of the term for which Joe Biden was elected in 2008 and announced from the beginning that he would not be a candidate for the remaining four years of the term in 2010. The major industry these days in Delaware is the credit card industry. I can’t see him voting against Bernanke.  

Carl Levin (Mich.) Reelected comfortably to his sixth term in 2008, he is a pretty free actor on the Bernanke nomination. My guess is that he’d be a 60th vote for the leadership if needed. If not, he might like, as the senator from the state with the nation’s highest unemployment rate, to cast a nay vote. 

Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) She’s up for reelection this year and either trailing her little-known Republican opponents in polls or running well under 50%. She announced yesterday that she won’t back using reconciliation procedures to support a Democratic health care bill; all her electoral incentives are against supporting the leadership. Arkansas is not a bastion of support for a strong Fed. I think the Democratic leadership would be crazy to count on her vote.  

Patty Murray (Wash.) She’s up for reelection this year, and until the last few weeks seemed utterly safe in a state carried comfortably by Barack Obama. Now there’s talk that she may have serious Republican opposition, and if Massachusetts isn’t safe Democratic territory, Washington state isn’t either. Murray is an appropriator, and has concentrated on bringing money and programs to Washington state and propitiating its major economic interests. “The mom in tennis shoes” (as she called herself when she first won in 1992) is now a prime Washington D.C. insider.  I peg her as a Bernanke vote if needed, but a very reluctant one, who will have to be persuaded that her vote is absolutely, absolutely necessary to avoid a debacle for Democrats.  

Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) Her states has gone from pretty strongly Democratic in 2006 and 2008 to pretty strongly Republican, in polls at least, in 2010. She’s not up until 2012, but my guess is she’s pretty nervous (she can hardly have ignored what happened in Massachusetts last week, not have failed to notice Scott Brown’s big majorities in towns bordering New Hampshire like Dracut, Methuen and Haverhill). A vote in reserve for the leadership, perhaps; but one requiring some serious persuasion. 

Arlen Specter (Pa.) He used to be a problem vote for the Republican leadership; now he’s a problem vote for the Democratic leadership. His frank statement about why he was switching parties in April 2009 (because he calculated he couldn’t win a Republican primary) makes clear his basis for making tough decisions: political self-preservation. But he also needs support from Democratic leaders in his primary against Congressman Joe Sestak; they’ve promised it, but could forget their promises if he proves obdurate. My guess is that Specter will vote with the leadership for Bernanke; he’s a very smart lawyer and can concoct a plausible rationale for so doing.  

Tom Udall (N.M.) He, like his cousin Mark Udall of Colorado, was elected in 2008 and is not up for reelection until 2014. Mark Udall is on board for Bernanke, and New Mexico has also been a more Democratic state than Colorado over the years (the last Democratic senator from Colorado to have been reelected was Gary Hart in 1980; Tom Udall’s New Mexico Democratic colleague Jeff Bingaman has been reelected easily every six years since he was first elected in 1982). If the leadership can’t muscle a Bernanke vote out of him, they don’t deserve to be leaders.  

Jim Webb (Va.) He’s a prickly guy,the epitome of the Scots-Irish he wrote a book about. This week he came out against holding the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed in New York City—something the Democratic leadership surely didn’t like hearing him do. Not necessarily a team player, and you get the sense that if life will go on very nicely for him if he is not reelected in 2012. If I were the Democratic leadership, I would seek his vote by appealing to his patriotism rather than to his self-interest, and would raise the prospect of the economy being hurt—and the little guys being hurt—by a Bernanke rejection, rather than by bringing in big economic players or political strategists to convince him to cast a yes vote. Uncertain. 

Ron Wyden (Ore.) He’s up for reelection in 2010, and by all of his past performances and those of Oregon in recent elections he’s in excellent shape. Formerly the Congressman from ultraliberal Portland, he’s made it a practice since he was elected to the Senate in 1996 to meet with voters in all 39 counties at least once a year, and he’s good at listening respectfully to people and taking fair account of their views. He’s also economically sophisticated, and put together with Utah Republican Bob Bennett a bipartisan health care proposal based on eliminating the (policy-wise indefensible) tax preference for employer-provides health insurance.  In other words, a guy who needs to be appealed to on substance rather than on political calculation, though he’s never unaware of the latter. I tend to believe that he recognizes that a rejection of Bernanke would have disastrous financial consequences and that he won’t allow it to happen.  

So what’s the bottom line on Senate Democrats? I see eight of the nine votes the leadership needs to get Bernanke from 51 to 60 as reasonably gettable, and three more votes that they might get as well. That seems to leave them with a pretty fair margin of error. That’s assuming that Paul Kirk of Massachusetts casts a vote for Bernanke, though it’s not clear that he will still have a vote; Scott Brown on election night thanked him for “completing his service” and Republican lawyers have argued that he is no longer a senator once the Massachusetts vote has taken place (and the fact that the result in Massachusetts was not subject to challenge strengthens that argument). If I were the Democratic leadership, I would want at least another vote in reserve, and I might want to get Scott Brown on the record, one way or the other.  

I don’t think the Democratic leadership can count on still-uncommitted Republicans for many votes (or perhaps for any); although they might get some on the merits. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso of Wyoming have safe seats. Christopher Bond of Missouri and Sam Brownback of Kansas are retiring from the Senate. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has made a career of opposing Washington insiders and seeks no psychic rewards from them. Thad Cochran of Mississippi has a safe seat and, now past 70, may or may not run again. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Johnny Isakson of Georgia are up for reelection this year and have no motive to give their Democratic opponents a populist issue; Isakson’s colleague Saxby Chambliss will not upstage him by voting for Bernanke if Isakson votes no (they both took a political risk together by voting for TARP in 2008 when Chambliss was up for reelection). George LeMieux of Florida is an appointee and ally of Governor Charlie Crist; LeMieux is not running for the seat, but Crist is, and he won’t want to give his primary opponent former Speaker Marco Rubio an issue on this. Jim Risch of Idaho, Pat Roberts of Kansas and John Thune of South Dakota have utterly safe seats, not up this year, but have no reason to bail Democrats out. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, listed as uncommitted, might be persuaded by his Democratic counterparts to vote for Bernanke if his vote his absolutely needed; he just got through winning his toughest reelection fight in 2008 and doesn’t have to face Kentucky voters until 2014. But they’ll have to beg.  

Left out of these calculations is the vote of Scott Brown of Massachusetts. I think Democratic leaders would like to leave Paul Kirk in there to cast a safe vote for Bernanke (he’s off to resuming his retirement on Cape Cod, after all). But if they do so, they will have to answer all those Democratic bloggers who were urging them to use Kirk’s 60th vote to pass a Democratic health care bill. Although it’s obvious that they don’t have such a bill and they can’t get 60 votes for it any longer even with Kirk still seated, this is not an argument they’d like to face. At the same time, it’s obvious that they have zero leverage on Scott Brown.  

Bottom line: it looks to me like the Democratic leadership, burdened with the responsibilities of holding the Senate majority and the White House, will grind out enough votes to confirm Ben Bernanke. But it will be a joyless and unpleasant task. Republicans, as is the case with minority parties in these situations where Congress achieves a bipartisan safe-seat consensus, will not give much help to confirming a Republican as Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

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