LIANE HANSEN, host:
Congress returns to Washington this week for a long, hot summer. The first order of business: swearing in Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota as the 100th senator. Then he'll be busy. He's likely to sit on the Judiciary Committee, which begins hearings July 13th on the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. And he'll be on one of the committees putting together a bill to overhaul the health care system.
NPR's David Welna joins us now to talk about the workload. And David, first about Al Franken, is he the first senator who's a former comedian?
DAVID WELNA: Well, Liane, I don't know of any senator past or present who's actually made a living as a comedian as Al Franken did for many years. Though, some senators can actually be funny, albeit often unintentionally, but don't expect Al Franken to be out there cracking jokes on the Senate floor. I think as the most junior senator, he'll want to be taken seriously, at least until he gets established.
He also gives the Democratic Caucus its 60th vote, the key number that you need to block a filibuster. But Democratic Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd have both been away because of illness, so Democrats may still need some help from a couple of Republicans to move their agenda forward. And since Franken's due to sit on the Judiciary Committee, he'll be one of the 19 senators vetting Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor eight days from now.
HANSEN: Tell us where the nomination stands. Is there any fallout from last week's decision in the New Haven firefighters case?
WELNA: Well, you know, I expect we'll hear Republicans on the Judiciary Committee point out that the Supreme Court did reverse the ruling that Sotomayor made in that case, which was to uphold the city of New Haven's decision to throw out the results of a promotion test, when none of the black firefighters there scored well enough for promotions.
But it was a split decision by the high court with four justices, including the justice she hopes to succeed, David Souter, ruling to uphold the New Haven decision. I think we'll hear many more questions from Republicans about the dozen years that Sotomayor spent with the Puerto Rican Legal and Education Defense Fund before she became a judge.
GOP senators suspect her time with that group may show a streak of activism that's not so evident in her judicial record. And because documents at the committee requested from the Puerto Rican group were only delivered two days ago, some Republicans on the panel are saying this is reason to delay the start of the confirmation hearings, but even they admit that's unlikely to happen.
HANSEN: And in the minute we have left, you spent part of last week in Iowa and you were with Republican Senator Charles Grassley, major player on health care. What happened during your visit?
WELNA: Well, you know, I went to Iowa because Senator Grassley is the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which begins public hearings most likely this week, on what so far is a bipartisan health care bill. Grassley held a series of town hall meetings this past week in Iowa, and I tagged along to hear what he's hearing from his constituents.
And, you know, as I expected, he's sort of caught between both sides in the debate. Republicans want him to stand firm against Democrats. And Democrats want him to go along with things that they want, such as a public or government-run health insurance plan to compete with private plans. So Grassley is walking a fine line, though, he says he'll bail out from his role as a deal maker if liberal Democrats end up having too much sway over the final product.
HANSEN: And give us a yes or no. Will the Senate consider the bill on energy and global warming?
WELNA: Well, not until the fall at the earliest.
HANSEN: Okay. NPR's David Welna, thanks so much for joining us.
WELNA: You're welcome, Liane.
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