Franken's Victory Gives Democrats 60 Senators

Al Franken's victory gives the Democrats a 60th senator. Theoretically, that should end any chance Republicans would have had to hold up legislation through the filibuster.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

So, as we just heard in that report, one reason everyone has been watching this Senate race is because a victory by Franken gives the Democrats a 60th senator. And in theory, that should end any chance Republicans would have to hold up legislation through the filibuster. But there is, of course, a difference between theory and reality. And who better to give us a dose of reality than NPR's political editor Ken Rudin? Good morning, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Comparing Ken Rudin and reality in the same sentence is kind of interesting.

GREENE: I won't even go there. This story is probably giving you a lot of material. Are you going to miss it a little bit?

RUDIN: Well, Minnesota voters certainly won't. It's exciting to watch. It's not the worst thing in the world to have it fight out in the courts. But ultimately, I think people were tiring of it. And the State Supreme Court was the final say.

GREENE: So this magic 60, the magic number 60, Al Franken sort of downplayed it. He said it's not as magical as some people say. How important is it for Democrats to have those 60 votes?

RUDIN: Well, they have 60 seats, and they have the 58 Democrats, and they have two independents, Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, who vote with the Democrats. But they won't necessarily have 60 votes. Ben Nelson of Nebraska strays from the party line quite a bit. We saw Evan Bayh of Indiana vote against the Obama budget measure, among other things. Joe Lieberman often breaks from party orthodoxy on foreign policy issues. It remains to be seen if Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus and the Obama administration see eye-to-eye on health care. And nobody knows for sure how reliable Arlen Specter, the new Democrat, is going to be for Harry Reid and the Democratic leadership.

Plus, Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd have missed a lot of votes this year because of health issues. So we don't know that - the long-range prognosis for them. A lot of it depends on the issue. To say that the Republicans are completely impotent or the Democrats have no worries, I think that would be incorrect.

GREENE: And missing a vote because of illness - I mean, that could be the end of stopping a filibuster.

RUDIN: Well, obviously, you still need the 60 votes to stop the filibuster. And while you'll have 60 votes, you have to have all 60 voting on the same page, and that's not always easy to do for the Democrats.

GREENE: Well, take us back in history: When was the last time either party had had these 60 seats in the Senate?

RUDIN: Democrats had 61 votes as recently as 1978. It was during the Jimmy Carter administration. But if you remember back then, most of them fought among themselves than anything else. John Cornyn, the senator from Texas, said the other - I think said yesterday, that now the onus is on the Democrats to produce. Be careful what you wish for. Now, I would rather have, if I were a Democrat, I'd rather have 60 votes than 51 votes, say.

But, again, you know, just be careful what you wish for because it may turn out to bite you in the end.

GREENE: One thing that struck me in Tom Weber's piece that we just hear was Al Franken saying, you know, I am just the second senator from Minnesota, really downplaying his role in Washington. I mean, he's known as being quite a personality. I mean, what are you expecting? I mean, being sort of the quiet worker for a while? Is he going to make some noise when he gets here?

RUDIN: Well, ultimately, he will make noise because he is Al Franken, but I think his strategy was smart during the entire recount. He was uncharacteristically low key. Remember, Barack Obama carried Minnesota by some 300,000 votes last year. Al Franken won by 312 votes. So it appeared the Democrats were not wild about him, and he may have some fence mending to do. But, you know, it's tough to come into the Senate six months after the session started, although he's already hired staff. It shouldn't take him long.

There's some talk that he may get on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and if he does, he may have the opportunity to track some notice during the Sotomayor confirmation hearings.

GREENE: Could Democrats be a little leery of having a comedian in their ranks?

RUDIN: Well, there are a lot of comedians in politics, as we've seen in South Carolina and Nevada in the last couple of days. But, again, 60 votes is far better than 58 or 56.

GREENE: Well, what's next for Norm Coleman, the Republican who lost this race in very small numbers? We heard in the earlier piece that he's thinking about a run for governor.

RUDIN: Well, you know, his name is certainly out there, and I suspect that if he is going to run for governor next year, perhaps that's one of the reasons he ended his challenge after only 238 days. But, remember, he ran of governor once before in 1998. He lost to Jesse Ventura. So when you think of it, he's lost first to a wrestler and now to a comedian. I don't think that looks great on your resume.

GREENE: Probably not.

RUDIN: Perhaps Minnesota Republicans may be looking for a new candidate, but 2010 is a long way, you know, off down the line.

GREENE: Very briefly, Ken, one of the early reactions from Republicans is that they're a little frightened about the Democrats having these numbers. Does this force them into a new position now?

RUDIN: Well, you see - well, look. First of all, you can look at it another way, that the Democrats don't have to compromise now that they have the votes. Republicans are still looking for a strategy to battle Barack Obama, and, of course, it's tougher with 60 - with only 40 votes now out of the 100-vote Senate.

GREENE: Ken, thanks, as always.

RUDIN: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That is Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor. His Political Junkie blog can be found if you go to our Web site: npr.org/junkie.

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