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Is 56 is the New 60?

The Senate’s vote this afternoon to end a filibuster on Harry Reid’s scaled-down jobs bill, which passed with not one but five different Republican votes (Scott Brown of Massachusetts; Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and the retiring Kit Bond and George Voinovich) was interesting on a number of levels. For one thing, it suggests that a bipartisan process, which Reid aborted on this bill after complaints that it had been laden down with unrelated provisions, is not necessarily that highly correlated with a bipartisan outcome.

Secondly, this reflects a bit of a change of pace for a Senate which, as recently as January 28th, had voted on a bill to reinstate pay-go rules (another seemingly popular endeavor) on a strictly partisan basis. One difference between this vote and that one is that Scott Brown was seated in the interim, meaning that the Democrats officially lost their 60-seat supermajority. I can’t help but wonder if someone like an Olympia Snowe is going to be more inclined at the margins to support Democratic pieces of legislation when she knows they can’t pass without her support and that it will no longer suffice simply to blame Democrats for their own problems.

Of course, one can reasonably ask why this bill — which is supported by something like 70 and 80 percent of the public — received only five Republican votes for cloture and not more. But just as the Democrats 60-seat majority was far more tenuous in practice than it was on paper, so too a 59-seat majority may is not nearly as hopeless at it seems. Although the equation by which a Snowe or Brown might decide to vote for or against a particular piece of legislation is complicated, at least at the margins the popularity of the bill matters as might other circumstances like Presidential approval.

If nothing else, the vote confirms what we anticipated, which is that Scott Brown will add a third authentically moderate Republican to their caucus, joining Collins and Snowe. When the new Congress convenes next January, that number will almost certainly increase to 4, as another East Coast moderate, Mike Castle, is projected to win election in Delaware.

Hence, the title of this post: is 56 is the new 60? If the Democrats can keep 56 of their own seats in the new Senate — which will be a bit tough, but is far from out of the question — then they may frequently be able to cobble together a coalition between the 56 Democrats and the four moderate Republicans — Brown, Collins, Snowe and Castle. There are other Republican whose votes might be in play on particular issues — Linsday Graham on climate change, Dick Lugar on foreign policy stuff — but those the Snowe/Brown/Collins/Castle block should be up for grabs on almost every issue.

There are a couple of other moderate Republicans running for office too. If Mark Kirk defeats Alexi Giannoluias, for instance, he’d add a fifth moderate Republican member. The same goes for Tom Campbell if he prevails in California over Barbara Boxer, or Charlie Crist of Florida if he somehow comes back to win the Republican primary.

That’s about it, though — most of the Republicans running for office are conservatives. And of course, the Democrats won’t hold all of their own votes on many issues — Ben Nelson, for instance, defected on today’s jobs vote. But holding their losses to somewhere in the neighborhood of 56 seats could be significantly better for the Democrats than a slightly lower number, like 53.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.