Al Franken's victory in the long-running battle for Minnesota's U.S. Senate seat gives Democrats the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster. But it may not be that easy. There are a dozen Democrats who may not toe the party line.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
So, with Al Franken joining them, will Senate Democrats have the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster? Well, joining us now is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. And, Ron, let's do the numbers. How many Democrats are there in the Senate?
RON ELVING: With Al Franken you have 58 senators duly sworn, calling themselves Democrats and that includes Arlen Spector, who switched parties earlier this year. And then you can add two Independents who usually vote with the Democrats, that's Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. And that would give them the 60 needed to cut off debate, as you say, end a filibuster if...
SIEGEL: If all...
ELVING: All 60 have to be able to vote.
SIEGEL: And what is the likelihood, first of all, that all 60 would be there to vote?
ELVING: It's been a while since we've seen Ted Kennedy in the chamber. His cancer prognosis is problematic. We also have Robert C. Byrd, who's 91 years old and just came home from the hospital today. He's been suffering from a staph infection. But beyond that you've got perhaps a dozen members of the Senate caucus in the Senate who are centrists, or moderates or even outright conservatives on some issues. And you also have a handful of mavericks who can be kind of unpredictable.
SIEGEL: Yeah, the notion of party discipline in the U.S. Senate is - it's...
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: An oxymoron. As a practical matter, I mean, would the Democrats want to have, maverick or not, would they want to have the authority to run the chamber without the threat of a Republican filibuster?
ELVING: In theory, of course, surely they would, but the last time the Democrats had 60 votes was during the Carter administration, and if we think back on that era, it kind of speaks for itself. The divisions within the party were so bad that it seemed as though Jimmy Carter was at odds with his Senate as often as not. And in practice, the Senate works best when it's least partisan -when skillful leaders put together supermajorities that include members from both parties.
SIEGEL: How would you describe the Democrats in this Senate? Are they more of a unit than previous Democratic majorities, less so?
ELVING: In some senses they are more of a unit. In 1979, 30 years ago, there were still 18 southern Democrats and they were a force, often like a party unto themselves. In the current Senate the number of southern Democrats is down to seven.
SIEGEL: There's been a great realignment (unintelligible).
ELVING: Tremendous realignment that began in 1980. And so the center of gravity is no longer in Dixie and the party is more consistently liberal.
SIEGEL: Let's say you're the leader of the Senate Democrats, is there any downside to having a 60-vote majority and being able to block any filibuster?
ELVING: Yes. And I think the downside really does focus on the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, because now the onus is on him to pass legislation in a form that most Democrats prefer, and that's going to be a big influence all through the legislative process. So over on the House side you've got committee chairs who are very tired of hearing about the filibuster and how tough life is in the Senate, and they're going to want to be much more aggressive and they're going to tell Harry Reid to get his Democrats in line.
And a lot of those individual Democrats over there in the Senate, each one can now be a deal breaker. That's talking about anybody who happens to be on the right on a particular issue and it's also talking about those on the left such as Al Franken and some of the others who were already there.
SIEGEL: And apart from such senators as the two senators from Maine, there aren't that many Republicans across the aisle who are likely to be partners in legislation.
ELVING: That is correct. The two women from Maine, on certain issues you might reach out to a couple of others. We've got some people leaving, like George Voinovich, who may want to be part of something. You've got some other people who are very interested in health care, might be with the Democrats on certain issues.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Ron.
ELVING: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.
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Democrat Al Franken won Minnesota's Senate race Tuesday after Republican opponent Norm Coleman conceded, hours after the state Supreme Court ruled in Franken's favor in an election dispute that had dragged on for nearly eight months.
Franken, a former Saturday Night Live comedian and liberal commentator, wins the disputed election by only a few hundred votes. He will give Senate Democrats control of 60 seats, enough to overcome any Republican filibuster if they stay united.
Coleman announced his decision at a news conference outside his St. Paul home. "The Supreme Court has made its decision and I will abide by the results," Coleman told reporters.
"In these tough times we all need to focus on the future, and the future is that we have a new United States senator," he said.
Franken, accompanied by his wife, told reporters outside his downtown Minneapolis house that he and his wife were "thrilled" that they could "finally celebrate this victory."
"I can't wait to get started," he added. "I've been trying to keep abreast of what's going on, and I'll do the best I can"
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the earliest Franken would be seated is next week, because the Senate is out of session for the July 4 holiday.
In Tuesday's ruling, the court wrote that "because the legislature established absentee voting as an optional method of voting, voters choosing to use that method are required to comply with the statutory provisions."
It went on to say that "because strict compliance with the statutory requirements for absentee voting is, and always has been required, there is no basis on which voters could have reasonably believed that anything less than strict compliance would suffice."
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whose signature is needed on the election certificate, has said repeatedly he would sign it if ordered to do so by the court, most recently in an interview Sunday with CNN. But the governor has been less clear on what he would do if the order was vague, and the court's ruling Tuesday said only that Franken was "entitled" to the certificate.
Reid said Pawlenty should respect the votes of his constituents and the court and seat Franken.
The election certificate also requires the signature of Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. Ritchie, a Democrat, said he views Tuesday's ruling as a direction to sign the certificate and that he would do so "as soon as the governor issues it." He said he hasn't spoken with Pawlenty and wasn't aware that the governor was out of the state at a conference in Washington.
Franken declared his candidacy more than two years ago, and he and Coleman have combined to spend $50 million in pursuit of the seat. That's more than double what it cost candidates in 2002, when Coleman won the seat that had been held by the late Paul Wellstone.
In the months since Election Day, both men have kept comparatively low profiles. After Coleman's term expired in January, he took a job as a consultant and strategic adviser to the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group that advocates in Washington on Jewish issues.
But Coleman also frequently appeared at the lower-court proceeding that handled his legal challenge, in contrast to Franken, who stayed away. Aside from some trips to Washington to meet with Reid and other Senate leaders, Franken has spent his time in private, saying he was studying issues to be prepared if seated.