Franken as 60th Senate Democrat: How big a prize?

It's better for Democrats than 59. But a Senate supermajority didn't much help the last president to have one: Jimmy Carter.

Brian Peterson/The Star Tribune/AP
Democrat Al Franken with his wife Franni at his side, wave outside their home in Minneapolis, Tuesday. Republican Norm Coleman conceded to Franken in Minnesota's contested Senate race Tuesday, hours after a unanimous state Supreme Court ruled the former "Saturday Night Live" comedian should be certified the winner.

Al Franken’s recount victory in Minnesota’s US Senate race gives the Democratic majority its 60th senator – but no guarantee that the new “supermajority” will hold on tough votes on energy, healthcare reform, and war.

That 60-vote threshold needed to break a filibuster by the minority party has been Exhibit A in fundraising appeals on both sides of the aisle throughout the 239-day recount in Minnesota. What the red-flagged e-mail appeals didn’t say was this: It may not matter.

Take Jimmy Carter – the last US president with a filibuster-proof majority, at least on paper. President Carter came into office in 1977 with a head count of 61 senators in the Democratic majority, but it didn’t ensure him the votes to jump-start a morose economy or move White House tax and welfare reforms. His majority, which still included a critical mass of Southern Democrats, was deeply divided.

Democratic senators not marching in lock step

To a lesser extent, so is today's Democratic majority. On issues ranging from a “public option” for health coverage to environmental regulations to curb carbon emissions, Democrats are struggling to find their own common ground before taking on the Republicans.

Democrats are also down two for most votes, as Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Robert Byrd of West Virginia have been absent from the Senate for health reasons.

“Given how frequently the filibuster is used as a tool in party battles, it’s obviously better to have 60 votes than 59,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “But if you follow divisions that have emerged on healthcare and energy, there are a lot of intraparty tensions within the Democratic
Party. If Democrats splinter come October on such legislation, being able to block a Republican filibuster won’t mean much.”

Franken's 'to do' list

Senator-elect Franken, expected to be sworn in when the Senate returns, as early as Monday, will have little time to ramp up for what is expected to be an intense month of legislating before the August break.

The Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, on which he is expected to serve, is winding down a mark-up of comprehensive health reform legislation – a key issue in Franken’s campaign. The panel is struggling with how to craft a government-run health insurance option and bring down the cost of the program to
a level that can win support of 12 to 15 moderate Democrats.

Franken is also expected to participate in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, expected to begin July 13. With the defection of former GOP Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Democrats have a big 12-to-7 margin going into those hearings.

While the Senate has had many high-profile freshmen with celebrity names, it’s never had a professional comedian.

“The Senate can get pretty ponderous and self-important, so it helps to have somebody to lighten up the dialogue,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “There are people that come in with a reputation earned in another field and blunder badly because they overestimate what they can do or just don’t get the personal chemistry with senators that is so important. He’s going to need to put himself in the position that Hillary Clinton did … to go through a period of self-apprenticeship and learn to become a senator.”

Six months into an intense session, he’s also going to have to do it fast.

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