Democrats say success of the stimulus bill may hinge on who prevails in the Minnesota race.
WASHINGTON - Call it the Franken Factor.
With Senate debate on President Obama's stimulus package getting underway Monday, both sides are looking for changes -- and votes. And with Democrats tantalizingly close to a filibuster-proof majority, their leaders say they could use Al Franken about now.
"Our burden would be a little lighter," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
The importance of Franken's recount battle with Republican Norm Coleman was further enhanced over the weekend with reports that New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg might become commerce secretary, opening the possibility that Democratic Gov. John Lynch might replace him with a Democrat.
That scenario - though hotly contested by Republicans - would make Franken, who leads Coleman by 225 votes, the Democrats' 60th vote in the Senate.
"The national significance of the Minnesota race has just been kicked up a notch," said University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs, who has been following the recount closely. "With the Gregg situation, Minnesota is emerging as a game changer."
The arithmetic also ups the ante for the recount trial itself, as both sides find themselves potentially litigating the crucial 60th vote in the Senate, the threshold for blocking any potential Republican filibuster.
"If Franken starts to look like a solid 60th vote, all the stops will be pulled," said David Schultz, who teaches government at Hamline University in St. Paul. "Suddenly, the stakes get even higher."
One immediate prospect, Schultz said, is the increased likelihood that the election challenge will be appealed to the federal courts, lengthening the Senate vacancy from Minnesota, which has been reduced to one senator since Jan. 3.
It still seems unlikely that the recount contest, now before a three-judge panel in St. Paul, will be decided before Congress takes final action on the $819 billion stimulus package, which the House passed last week.
But with the Senate expected to pare down some of the spending proposals approved by House Democrats that don't create jobs, it is also increasingly likely some parts of the Obama administration's economic agenda -- particularly those focused on energy and health care -- will be put off for several weeks or months.
Pressure on Republicans
Some new jobs initiatives also came to light Monday that could increase the size of the stimulus package, including a beefed-up proposal in the Senate to build up rural broadband infrastructure. Among those lobbying for the program are Qwest Communications officials in Minnesota, who would be well positioned to bid for the funds.
"This will definitely create jobs," said Qwest Minnesota President John Stanoch.
Schumer and Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada say they expect to get more Republican support in the Senate than they got in the House -- where Republicans voted as a bloc against the stimulus package. But Obama's allies aren't taking any chances.
Americans United for Change, a coalition of liberal and labor groups, is running television ads in four states targeting five Republican senators who might be susceptible to crossing party lines.
"This could well come down to a single deciding vote," said Jeremy Funk, a spokesman for the group, which is targeting Gregg, among others. "Taking Franken out of the equation, we need to hold all of the Democrats, and get one or more Republicans."
White House officials have declined to discuss Gregg's possible appointment, much less reports from Senate Republican leaders that he would not take the administration post without assurances that his successor will caucus with Republicans.
Reid is pushing for Senate passage of the stimulus bill by week's end. Republican leaders say they are not trying to prevent the bill from passing, but that they want to add more income tax cuts and mortgage relief.
Needing another vote
The upcoming stimulus vote has been central to Franken's desire for a speedy resolution of the election standoff. "Obviously, he's eager to roll up his sleeves and get to work," said his spokeswoman, Jess McIntosh.
Coleman was noncommittal about the stimulus in a recent interview, saying he feared it could become a "Christmas tree" of pent-up Democratic spending proposals.
Among those working to pare down the spending in the bill to make it more palatable to the GOP is Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who is being targeted by ads paid for by Democratic interest groups.
But with House Republicans having turned against the stimulus package en masse, some Democrats fear that the prospects of a close vote or a filibuster in the Senate have increased. That has focused attention back on the Senate race in Minnesota, the last of several close races to be settled.
"They need 60 and they're still not there," said Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who is a strong proponent of the stimulus. "Sometimes being one or two away is like being 100 members away. We need that Franken vote, and it's critical that we get it fast."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753