Analysis: Democrats' new power of 60 may prove illusory

  • Article by: CARL HULSE , New York Times
  • Updated: July 1, 2009 - 11:17 PM

The Democrats' new mathematical might in the Senate could prove illusory. Illness is keeping two veterans away and mavericks on either end of the ideological spectrum are more than willing to buck their party if they don't get their way.

WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats are about to reach the magical threshold of 60 votes, allowing them in theory to sweep aside Republican delaying tactics. But the arrival of that 60th vote, in the person of Minnesota's Al Franken, is not likely to make the party's very real difficulties in advancing contentious legislation disappear.

The persistent absences of two veteran Democratic senators because of illness, the varied ideological makeup of the Democratic caucus and the willingness of individual senators to break with the party if they do not get their legislative way make the new mathematical might of the Democrats a bit illusory.

"We have 60 votes on paper," Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday in an interview. "But we cannot bulldoze anybody; it doesn't work that way. My caucus doesn't allow it. And we have a very diverse group of senators philosophically. I am not this morning suddenly flexing my muscles."

Indeed, becoming the first party in 30 years to reach the fabled plateau of 60 could create as many political problems as it solves, raising expectations sky high and potentially causing a backlash should Democrats falter on energy or health care.

"The American people are going to say, 'Look, we have given you the authority to make changes on health care, go ahead and do it,' " said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent aligned with the Democrats. "No more excuses."

Such talk no doubt unnerves Democratic leaders, who know how excruciating it can be to assemble the supermajority of 60 votes on relatively routine bills, let alone on the complex and far-reaching measures coming down the congressional pike.

Still, there is no denying that Franken's double-overtime victory in Minnesota gives Democrats another reliable vote, and they would much rather have that than the alternative.

Franken, who accepted the concession of Republican Norm Coleman after a favorable court ruling, could be sworn in Tuesday. Whether a full complement of Democrats will be on hand to welcome him is doubtful.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., 77, is being treated for brain cancer and is rarely seen in the Senate except for extraordinary circumstances. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., 91, just finished a hospital stay of more than a month because of a staph infection. Aides could not predict whether Byrd would be voting regularly when the Senate returns from its July 4th break.

Even if Byrd were voting, it might not be with Democrats on the big issues. While Kennedy could be counted on to help push Democratic initiatives on health care and climate change, Byrd might be a tough sell on the global warming bill, given strong resistance in his coal-producing state.

Top Democrats say that the illnesses of those two senior statesmen are problematic but that at vital moments the men would most likely be able to come to the Senate and vote. Their absences, however, leave Democrats with a working majority of 58, allowing Republicans an opening to raise procedural hurdles regularly.

The two senators' health is just one concern for Senate Democrats, who are at the moment divided on how to approach health care and energy. Keeping occasional mavericks such as Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana in the fold could prove vexing. At the same time, senators at the more liberal end of the spectrum have been known to balk when they feel legislation has been too heavily tailored to appeal to more moderate and conservative Democrats.

"I am not about to surrender any of my votes on the basis that there are now 60 members of my caucus," Nelson said in an interview. "I don't think we will walk in lockstep. It will be issue by issue."

That Democratic dynamic means the party will have to continue to try to appeal to at least a few Republicans on major issues to compensate for potential defectors. "One or two could peel off on any issue," Reid said.

The 60-seat majority will also increase the pressure from the left on wayward Democrats in an effort to hold them in line. That development has already begun as liberal interest groups have registered discontent with Democrats who have expressed reservations about the emerging health plan.

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