STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Two years ago, Democrats had a narrow majority in the Senate. But an aspiring Senate candidate named Al Franken was among those predicting big gains.
INSKEEP: At a 2007 campaign event, Al Franken made this prediction.
Senator AL FRANKEN (Democrat, Minnesota): We'll have 56 or 57 or 58 or 59 or 60 Democratic U.S. senators, and I intend to be one of them. Thank you.
(Soundbite of clapping)
INSKEEP: Now Al Franken is vote number 60 for the Democrats. He was sworn in yesterday. His delayed victory gives Democrats the power to overcome Republicans and pass whatever they want, if they're united.
NPR's David Welna reports on the challenge of managing that big majority.
DAVID WELNA: The visitor galleries in the Senate chamber were packed yesterday with Al Franken supporters. Below them, Vice President Joe Biden administered the oath of office as Franken swore on a Bible once owned by Minnesota's late Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone.
Vice President JOE BIDEN: And that you well and faithfully discharge the duty of the office upon which you are about to enter, so help you God.
Sen. FRANKEN: I do.
Vice President BIDEN: Congratulations, Senator.
(Soundbite of applause)
WELNA: For three noisy minutes, the applause and cheers continued in the normally sedate Senate chamber. This was after all the moment that then-Senator Hilary Clinton had promised would transform the Senate when she appeared last October in this campaign ad for Franken.
(Soundbite of campaign ad)
Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. State Department): We don't have a lot of time to turn our economy around and it's going to take a new president and 60 senators willing to stand up for change. Now any single Republican can block the progress we need. Al Franken could very well be that 60th vote.
Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): Obviously having 60 is a good number.
WELNA: That's California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. She's not so sure that having 60 senators means those 60 will vote together.
Sen. FEINSTEIN: We're a big tent party. People walk to the sound of a different drummer, and so it's hard to tell.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): People just think it was magic that we elected the 60th Democratic senator. It's not.
WELNA: And Dick Durbin should know. As the Democratic whip, it's his job to round up enough votes to move legislation forward. Durbin is keenly aware that two senators, Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd, have been sidelined by illness. He's now asking the other members of his caucus to vote with their leaders, not necessarily on the final passage of legislation, which requires just 51 votes, but at least on procedural matters to move things forward. Those need 60 vote supermajorities.
Sen. DURBIN: This is not a binding rule in the caucus, it's just a plea to our members that if we're going to face a historic vote on health care reform, we're urging Democratic caucus members to support us on the procedural issues.
WELNA: But some Democrats from more conservative states are balking on big issues, such as health care and climate change. Indiana's Evan Bayh says it's no surprise that Durbin wants the Democratic caucus hanging together on procedural votes.
Senator EVAN BAYH (Democrat, Indiana): That's Dick's job. I would expect in there to do no less, but most people vote their conscience. They do what they think is right. They listen to their colleagues, they respect the president, you know, as do I. We'd like to be helpful in getting things done, practical things done. But at the end of the day you're responsive to your constituents and to your conscience and you do what you think is right.
WELNA: Senators, Bayh adds, are not sheep. Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu agrees.
Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): I do not feel any obligation to stick with the caucus on all procedural votes. I'm going to take, you know, each as it comes and make my decision.
WELNA: There are probably half a dozen such Democrats, along with independent Joe Lieberman, who routinely break ranks to vote with Republicans. Maine Republican Susan Collins is a centrist. She says, if anything, some Democrats may now be voting more often with Republicans.
Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): Ironically, Senator Franken joining the Senate probably puts more pressure on the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus who have relied on the Republican senators to block unwise or very expensive legislation. Now there will be more pressure on them to step up to the plate as well.
WELNA: Some Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, say Democrats now need to be held even more accountable.
Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): Our Democratic friends now have their long-sought 60 votes. The American people will fully understand that they own the government, the executive branch, the House and the Senate. And they are waiting to see the results of their programs.
WELNA: But Majority Leader Harry Reid insists he still needs the Republicans' help.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): I would hope the Republicans understand that they should be part of this game here. And I am having a meeting tomorrow with a number of Republicans strictly on the issue of health care.
WELNA: Reid would not name the four Republicans he is meeting with. But it's clear that despite Al Franken's arrival, Reid is still fishing for GOP votes.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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