The Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously declared Al Franken the winner of the longest contest for U.S. Senate in the state's history on June 30. After nearly eight months, millions of dollars in legal fees, two appeals and a recount, GOP incumbent Norm Coleman conceded gracefully, telling reporters in front of his St. Paul home, "I have never believed that my service is irreplaceable. We have reached the point where further litigation damages the unity of our state, which is also fundamental. In these tough times, we all need to focus on the future. And the future today is: we have a new United States Senator. I congratulate Al Franken and his victory in this election."
So at long last, Senate Democrats can celebrate the milestone they have dreamed of ever since the start of the last election campaign: a presumably filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the U.S. Senate. Not only that, but they have added a famous face with a high TV-recognizability factor to help with fundraising and brought someone with a decent sense of humor to the world's most deliberative body.
But in terms of actual voting, the Democrats are still short of their 60-vote majority, given that Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd are on indefinite medical leave and are only likely to return for the most important votes. Not to mention the fact that governing the Senate, as former majority leader Trent Lott once put it, is like herding cats. The Dems have such a wide umbrella that finding issues that unite both ends of the 60-vote spectrum can be tough.
Yet there are sure to be times when Franken's vote will make a difference. And not always in ways that will ease Senate majority leader Harry Reid's burden. Franken, for example, was a vocal opponent of the bank-bailout plan and could try to move the planned reregulation of Wall Street to the left. Still, Senate Democrats will benefit from having one more friendly face in the chamber and one less Republican arm to twist. "It's one more vote," Dick Durbin said with a beleaguered laugh when asked last week about the difference Franken might make. As the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Durbin is the man responsible for counting the votes. "We have this tough situation with Senator Byrd and Senator Kennedy, so on a good day, we have 57. Al Franken makes it 58. It lightens my load a little bit, and Harry's as well, to find the additional votes to reach 60. And that's what it's all about."
Here are five key areas where Franken's vote could have decisive impact:
1. Health Care
This was always going to be a heavy lift for the Obama Administration, and an extra vote in the Senate could mean the difference for passage. Franken supports an individual mandate and has said he'd like to see all children under the age of 18 covered by a single payer system though he hasn't weighed in on a public plan to compete with the private plans in each state, perhaps the most contentious issue in the negotiations right now. Nevertheless, it's clear from his campaign statements that Franken will be a reliable Democratic vote on health-care reform. "There's no question that a health-care bill with a public-option component might end up being one of the razor-thin votes of the year, where Franken's vote could make a difference," says Larry J. Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.
2. Global Warming
The House last week passed its version of landmark climate-change legislation, which the Senate is scheduled to pick up this summer. On his website, Franken declares his support for renewable energy: "I think we need a new 'Apollo project' this time to fundamentally change our energy policy and end our reliance on foreign oil." But Franken will also be representing Minnesota: his website lists much longer and more detailed positions on agriculture. In the House, the rural caucus big supporters of ethanol was among the measure's biggest hurdles, and Franken is a big ethanol devotee. Though he has not made his position known on the climate-change bill, he is perceived as being a likely vote in favor. "Franken would help provide strong support for the President's climate-change initiative," says Don Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.
3. Ratifying Nominees
Some of the most contentious votes in the Senate surround the President's nominees for posts ranging from Cabinet officers to Supreme Court justices. Senate Republicans last month blocked Obama's appointment to the No. 2 slot at the Department of Interior, for example not over the nominee's qualifications, but over anger at some of Obama's reversals of Bush Administration policies in that department. Such votes tend to be along party lines, and Franken's arrival could smooth the path for some of these nominees. "We have 30 or so executive nominations, nearly all uncontroversial, just sitting there in the Senate with the threat of GOP filibusters, which at minimum take a lot of time," says Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "There will be a number of judicial nominations for appeals courts that may be filibustered or delayed. This is an area where party unity does occur and can make a big difference."
4. The Employee Free Choice Act
The top priority for organized labor, this bill, which would make it easier for workers to form unions, failed to overcome a filibuster in 2007 by a vote of 51-48. Since then the Democrats have added seven seats, not counting the defection of former GOP Senator Arlen Spector. Franken has strongly declared his support for the measure. "Not only will I vote for the Employee Free Choice Act, I'll proudly co-sponsor it," he says on his website. A vote is expected later this year, and this is one where Franken could make the difference.
The GOP has been successful in gumming up the works of the Senate in recent years, forcing Reid to file for cloture a record 97 times last session well over the previous record of 76 and another 18 times since the beginning of this year. Even the most basic pieces of legislation like the U.S. Tourism Promotion Act, which enjoyed 47 bipartisan co-sponsors and broad support have failed to pass cloture votes, which require 60 votes. At the very least, the Democrats' theoretical 60-vote majority could help de-gum some of the Senate's cogs so legislation might begin to flow again even at a trickle.