On Franken's first day as senator, a standing ovation

Fellow Democrats greeted him warmly Tuesday, but his vote is no guarantee that thorny legislation – such as healthcare reform and a sweeping energy bill – will hit the fast track.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota is sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden at the Capitol in Washington Tuesday.

Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota took his seat Tuesday as the nation’s 1,911th US senator, but No. 60 is the figure that will be forever linked to his political bio.

As the 60th member of the Democratic caucus, his vote gives the majority a firewall against bill-derailing filibusters – that is, if all caucus members vote the party line.

But Democratic leaders are scaling down expectations that Senator Franken’s vote guarantees a fast track for the big, tough bills moving through Congress this year.

“If you think it’s going to dramatically change things, it won’t,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader and vice chairman of the conference, after Tuesday's swearing in. “But it will mean that the dilatory tactics that some have invoked, which is just delay, delay, delay, lose a lot of punch.”

A standing ovation

Democratic colleagues gave the former comedian standing ovations at their caucus lunch today. In a joke-free response, Franken said he had worked hard to get to the Senate – Minnesota’s recount lasted 239 days – and intended to work hard to make people’s lives better.

“A lot has been made of this number 60. The number I'm focused on is the number two. I see myself as the second senator from the state of Minnesota,” Franken said in a briefing with Senate majority leader Harry Reid on Monday. “Minnesotans are very practical people. They want to make sure that the work we do here in the Senate makes sense, and that the decisions we make for the future have a strong return on investment."

Fundraising based on getting to 60

Senate Democrats have been raising funds for the past two election cycles on the prospect of getting the 60 votes needed to break Republican filibusters. With hearings on President Obama's first Supreme Court nomination set to begin next week, the 60th vote all but shuts down prospects for derailing the nomination on procedural grounds.

But the Democratic caucus is far from united on the far-reaching reform bills ramping up this summer and fall. With support for global-warming legislation split along regional lines, Democrats will need to rally critical GOP votes to make up for expected defections from coal-dependent Midwestern states.

Severe budget crises in big states like California are making it harder, too, to get consensus on legislative drafts of healthcare reform.

No Democratic accord over health reform, either

Commenting on the prospects for Senate legislation that would expand healthcare coverage through Medicaid, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California said the cost could sink her state.

“I asked the state for numbers, and they sent me anywhere from $1 billion to $5 billion more a year. With California on the precipice, that’s a problem,” she said.

With from 12 to 15 Democratic moderates in play on key votes – and two Democratic senators off the floor for health reasons – the leadership still faces a formidable task getting to 60 votes.

“There are now 60 members of the caucus, not 60 votes,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, who has often split with Democratic leaders. “I make my decision based on what’s best for the country and the state of Nebraska, without regard for the number of votes that are going to be there or are not going to be there.”

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