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Do the Republicans Have the Votes for a Stimulus Filibuster?

The possibility of a Senate filibuster of the stimulus package, which I argued only days ago was a remote possibility, now seems like a more tangible prospect, as Mitch McConnell is thinking out loud about the strategy. But does the GOP have the votes?

I still say most likely not. McConnell might well force Harry Reid to call a cloture vote — but I’m not sure he can prevent the Democrats from getting the 60 votes they need if that time comes.

Of the 41 Republican Senators, 34 have made some statement on the record opposing the stimulus. That does not necessarily mean that all Republicans who would vote against the stimulus would also vote for a filibuster, but let’s assume for now that McConnell has those 34 votes in the can (with one exception that we’ll discuss in a moment).

That leaves seven Republicans who haven’t come out against the stimulus. Two of those seven, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, have in fact spoken out in favor of the package. That could conceivably be ballgame for the Democrats, if all 58 of their members remain aligned. But, since the Democrats could potentially lose a couple of senators from their own ranks, they might require a Republican vote or two above and beyond the two women from Maine.

The five Republicans who haven’t articulated a clear position on the stimulus are John Barrasso, Mike Johanns, Mel Martinez, Dick Lugar and Arlen Specter. Throw Barrasso out, who is a conservative party-liner who presumably just hasn’t bothered to articulate a position on the public record. Johanns seems like a remote possibility of voting against a filibuster, but only that; although he has been in and out of meetings with the Susan Collinses of the world, he has also legislated as a conservative in his brief time in the Senate. Martinez, Lugar and Specter, on the other hand, all of whom came from states that Barack Obama won, might have a harder time voting to obstruct the package. We can probably also add Judd Gregg to the “maybe” list, whom while having issued a lukewarm statement against the stimulus, has obvious incentives these days to stay on the good side of the administration.

On the Democratic side, Ben Nelson is the most outspoken skeptic of the recovery package, while Kent Conrad has also been increasingly critical of the contents of the bill, if not necessarily its magnitude. But would they actually stand with the Republicans on a filibuster? In Nelson’s case, quite possibly; in Conrad’s, I doubt it.

Another issue for Democrats is Ted Kennedy’s health, as the septuagenarian has yet to make a roll call in the Senate this year.

Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln are always theoretically problems, but all represent impoverished states that would tend to benefit from some of the social welfare programs in the stimulus, and none are particularly conservative on pocketbook issues. Someone like Mark Warner, who comes from a wealthier state, might actually be a bigger problem.

Still, if the Democrats are starting out at exactly 60 votes assuming party unity plus Collins and Snowe, they seem to be in pretty good shape in terms of averting a filibuster, as there are five additional Republicans votes they could conceivably gain (Specter, Gregg, Lugar, Martinez, Johanns, probably in that order of likelihood) versus only two Democratic votes (Nelson and — for health reasons — Kennedy) that seem to be at real risk.

Now, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that there is more tangible Democratic opposition to the stimulus in its present form. But if so, I imagine those Senators would let Obama know ahead of time and work with him toward tweaking it rather than having him endure the embarrassment of a failed cloture vote. In other words, I doubt that Harry Reid goes to the floor unless he feels fairly assured about 60. I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the filibuster fails and then the stimulus passes, but with only 53-55 votes.

But in terms of sustaining a filibuster, I think McConnell is most likely bluffing. Then again, I didn’t think the GOP would manage unanimous opposition to the recovery bill in the House.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.