Why 60 is the New 50

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After I mentioned in yesterday’s Al Franken story that both Senator Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd have been absent due to medical reasons – thus making the Dems’ majority more like 58 than 60 — I got a lot of questions about Byrd’s health. Byrd was hospitalized after a fall in his home the week of May 11 and released yesterday, nearly seven weeks later. His staff said he contracted a staph infection in the hospital and was not looking at work until last week. Though the 91-year-old is on the mend, Senate Dem aides say no one is expecting him back any time soon (interestingly, few are willing to speak about Byrd on the record because, as one aide put it, why would you want to piss off a guy who has the power to pull your earmarks?).

Everyone thought the Senate would radically change when Dems won it back by a one-vote margin in 2006. Back then that majority was essentially a 46-49 one with Tim Johnson of North South Dakota on sick leave after a brain hemorrhage and with two Independent votes, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Some things did change: control of the chamber granted, for example, the Judiciary Committee the power to investigate President Bush’s firing of eight U.S. Attorneys. But legislatively, Dems were hamstrung by their inability to overcome Republican filibusters. Theoretically, Franken’s 60th seat grants them the power to grease the wheels on President Obama’s agenda. But, in reality, the majority is more like 56-40 what with Kennedy, Byrd, Lieberman and Sanders.

Many in the House view legislating in the Senate as a race to 60 – any additional votes representing superfluous giveaways. But the Senate moves more in blocs that are hard to splice. Thus the proliferation of gangs: gangs of seven, 16, 10, what have you. Moderates from the left and the right like coming together and giving each other cover, which is why – outside of nominations – one rarely sees extremely close votes in the Senate the way you do in the House. The same coalition courting will continue with Franken there, much the way it did when the Dems had 51 votes, the difference being the majority, perhaps, need not give away as much as they did before. On the other hand, many point to the $30 billion or so cut from the stimulus to get Susan Collins’ vote – presumably money that wouldn’t have been cut if Franken had been there. What they forget is Collins came in a bloc with Arlen Specter and Ben Nelson: lose one and you lose all three.