Senate Democrats Hope to Enjoy New Math

Posted July 19, 2010 at 6:29pm

A long list of Senate Democrats’ priorities has been stuck in neutral the past two weeks following Sen. Robert Byrd’s death, but with the arrival of his replacement today, party leaders will take their 59-vote majority out for a spin.

Carte Goodwin, the West Virginia Democrat tapped to temporarily fill Byrd’s seat, will be sworn in at 2:15 p.m. Minutes later, the chamber will hold a procedural vote on legislation to extend unemployment insurance benefits.

Later in the week, Democrats also hope to clear a small-business jobs bill that has been stalled as leadership searches for those last few votes needed to clear procedural hurdles.

Although they may still be mourning Byrd’s death, Democrats are relieved at Goodwin’s arrival. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), now West Virginia’s senior Member, advised colleagues last week to “keep moving forward and looking forward” with their priorities.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who has been pushing for weeks to clear the unemployment insurance bill, said Monday, “With [Byrd’s] death there was obviously a lot of uncertainty; we’re just all very grateful we have a successor.”

Goodwin “is not going to replace Sen. Byrd, but he’s going to be an important part of our caucus,” Reed added.

Goodwin, former general counsel of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D), met Monday with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

At 36 years old, Goodwin is five years younger than Byrd was when he took office following his first Senate win in 1958, although the newcomer’s time in office will likely be short-lived. Manchin is expected to announce this week when a special election might occur to fill Byrd’s seat, and the popular two-term governor likely will be the frontrunner in that race.

Goodwin’s arrival comes nearly a year after Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) was sworn in to office following a lengthy recount battle in his home state. Franken’s July 7, 2009, arrival gave Democrats a 60-vote supermajority and temporary relief from constantly searching for a Republican supporter to break through procedural obstacles on the floor. But the January election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) set Democrats back again.

President Barack Obama criticized Republicans for blocking the unemployment insurance extension in a Rose Garden speech Monday.

“Over the past few weeks, a majority of Senators have tried — not once, not twice, but three times — to extend emergency relief on a temporary basis,” Obama said. “And each time, a partisan minority in the Senate has used parliamentary maneuvers to block a vote, denying millions of people who are out of work much-needed relief. Republican leaders in the Senate are advancing a misguided notion that emergency relief somehow discourages people from looking for a job.”

Senate Democrats barely managed to clear a landmark financial services overhaul last week, but not much else moved through the chamber while Byrd’s seat was vacant.

The Democrats’ stalled priorities include the campaign finance bill, known as the DISCLOSE Act. Brown, who was being courted as a potential supporter for that bill, dealt Democrats a blow last week by announcing he would oppose it.

“Rather than reform our campaign finance laws and provide increased transparency, the DISCLOSE Act advances the political agenda of the majority party and special interests in an effort to gain a tactical and political advantage little more than 100 days before an election,” Brown wrote in a letter to advocacy groups.

Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) has said there is not enough time to take up the measure, while state colleague Susan Collins (R), another potential “yes” vote, had harsh words for the House-passed version of the bill that includes a controversial carve-out for the National Rifle Association. Collins also complained that the legislation would unfairly favor unions.

So while Reid and Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) assured House leaders the Senate could take up the package this month, they appear short of the votes needed to thwart a filibuster on the floor.

Reid is also still trying to corral his Members and a few Republicans to back some kind of energy package he wants to bring to the floor next week. Democrats are sure to continue talks and may broach the subject at their Tuesday luncheon, but what the proposal looks like and whether it can win enough support on the floor is in doubt.

“Sen. Reid looks forward to welcoming Sen. Goodwin,” Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle said. “Like Sen. Byrd, his vote will be crucial in moving forward our agenda to create jobs, support the middle class and strengthen our economy.”