When the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Democrat Al Franken bested former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) in their long-disputed 2008 race, the five justices handed Senate Democrats the 60-vote majority they never dreamed they’d have, but party insiders warn that the ruling is both a blessing and curse.
On the one hand, 60 is the magic number to beat back a GOP-led filibuster. On the other, Democrats will have no one but themselves to blame if they can’t pass President Barack Obama’s ambitious plans to rewrite health care, overhaul banking regulations and tackle global warming. And Democratic infighting will likely be the predominant media storyline rather than the partisan gridlock that has characterized the chamber over the past several years.
“We have 60 votes on paper only,— said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “This will help us procedurally but we’re still going to have obstacles to overcome, including two sick Senators and the fact that not every Democrat is going to stick with the caucus on every single vote.—
The aide continued, “That being said, we’re not complaining. It’s a much better problem than two years ago when were only had 51 votes.—
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has repeatedly said that having 60 Democratic-leaning Senators — the Conference includes two Independents — does not ensure passage of anything.
In April, when Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) bolted the Republican Party — a decision that set Democrats on the path to 60 — Reid said he did not necessarily see his job getting any easier.
“I certainly don’t count [Specter] as an automatic vote,— Reid said at the time. “Not surprisingly, I don’t count anyone in my caucus as an automatic vote.—
Already, centrist Democrats have been pushing back on major climate change and health care reform legislation. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), for example, has been skeptical of both legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions and Obama’s plan to create a public health insurance plan.
“They might have a 60-Member Majority. That doesn’t mean they have 60 votes,— Nelson said after Specter’s switch. “It will be issue by issue that will determine how many votes the majority party gets.—
Nelson is hardly the only moderate who has caused problems for Democrats this year, or even the only one who still threatens to be a tough sell. Both Nelson and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) have come under fire from left-leaning groups who want them to support the president’s push for a public health care option.
Others moderates, such as Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), have taken up the mantle of fiscal responsibility and voted against Democratic spending plans. Plus, Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) recently threatened to help Republicans block or delay all Senate business until he was assured that photos of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan would not be released to the public.
“Moderates sure matter right now and will certainly swing the direction of the big-ticket agenda items,— said another senior Senate Democratic source.
And Republicans hinted that they are certainly going to increase the pressure on those Democratic centrists to hold the line.
“Unchecked power concerns everyone, but particularly when the Administration's agenda includes fundamentally changing our market-based economy, our health care, and energy production,— said one senior Senate GOP aide. “Now that Democrats have the votes for passage before any debate begins, it puts much more pressure on moderate Democrats to vote for the best interest of their constituency, not their political party.—
But liberal Senators — Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and possibly even Franken — could also prove to be stumbling blocks for Reid as he tries to move legislation to the center to appease his moderates. Feingold and Sanders, for example, voted against the recent supplemental war spending bill, presumably because it continued to fund the war in Iraq.
Even without problems corralling moderates and liberals, Democrats haven’t really been able to boast of their 59-vote majority in recent months, considering Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has missed most votes while battling a brain tumor. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) just got out of the hospital Tuesday after a six-and-a-half-week stay.
Assuming those two Senators continue their absences, Democrats will only have 58 reliably voting Senators. Even if the 91-year-old Byrd is well-enough after battling multiple infections to resume voting in the next week or two, Kennedy has rarely returned given the taxing cancer treatments he has been undergoing.
Any absence by a Democratic Senator could be used to full advantage by Republicans wanting erect legislative blockades. In order to overcome a filibuster attempt, Democrats have the burden of producing the full 60 votes; Republicans do not have to produce 41 in opposition to win. Already, Republicans have won two such votes this year with less than 40 votes.
The last time a Senate majority had 60 votes was during the 95th Congress from 1977-1979, when Democrats had a commanding 61-vote majority.