The majority often does NOT rule in the Senate.
That fact - little known among the general public - helped Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, hold off passage of a crime bill last week that contained an assault weapon ban, which he and many Utah gun enthusiasts abhor.Even though 57 of the 100 senators favored the bill and even voted to cut off debate on it, the minority led by Hatch was still triumphant in essentially killing the bill instead.
The story behind that shows how the minority party can wield influence beyond its numbers in the Senate.
First, forget about the old civics class lessons that taught that for a bill to pass, it needs only a simple majority in each house. The practical reality is much different.
At least 60 Senate votes are needed to ensure passage of most bills. That comes because of the Senate practice of allowing members to offer as many amendments or to speak as long as they like on a bill.
That allows opponents to "filibuster" - or literally talk a bill to death to prevent votes on it. That can't happen in the House, where its Rules Committee always puts strict limits on the amount of debate and amendments that bills there may receive.
The only way to cut off debate forcefully in the Senate is through a "cloture" vote. It requires 60 votes to pass.
In the case of the crime bill, senators unhappy with it proposed a whopping 300 amendments - about half from conservatives such as Hatch seeking to weaken proposed gun bans, and half from liberals wanting to weaken a federal death penalty.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., tried to cut off expected lengthy debate with a cloture vote. The vote was 57-43, just three short of the 60 he needed.
He can negotiate changes in the bill to try to convince at least three more senators to vote for cloture. Otherwise, the bill will sit indefinitely in limbo - being talked to death any time it may be brought up for action on the floor.
Sometimes bills need even more votes than 60 to pass.
For example, a two-thirds vote of senators present is needed to overturn a presidential veto. Earlier this year President Bush managed to have his veto upheld of a bill that called for sanctions against China even though only a mere 62 of the 535 members of Congress backed his action.
The House voted 390-25 to overturn the veto. The Senate voted 62-37 - which was four votes short of the two-thirds needed there, so the veto stood.
Constitutional amendments also need a two-thirds majority, which hurt Hatch last year. He helped convince a majority of the Senate - 51 of 100 - to vote for a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. But the 51-48 vote was 15 short of the number needed for passage.
Also in the Senate, just one senator can wreak havoc for any bill by placing a "hold" on it. Most routine Senate bills are passed quickly by unanimous consent at the end of each day, unless someone objects and places a "hold" on it. For the bill to then pass, the majority leader must call it up for debate on the floor and a vote.
Once a hold is placed on a routine bill, Senate leadership usually wants the bill's sponsor and the senator placing the hold to work out differences if possible to avoid the need for lengthy debate. Depending on how many other higher profile bills are crowded on the debate calendar, a hold could almost kill a bill.
Even if the majority leader decides to call up a bill that has had a hold placed on it, it may again be filibustered by the senator placing the hold unless 60 other senators vote for cloture.
Many senators therefore try to avoid holds on their bill by obtaining at least 59 other co-sponsors to show they have the strength to pass a cloture vote.
In short, while the majority may rule in a democracy, the minority can often rule in the Senate - which makes Republicans there very powerful even though they are outnumbered.