Suddenly, Al Franken represents more than just an empty seat in the Senate chamber.
Franken could have been the critical 60th vote on the stalled $410 billion omnibus Thursday night. He’d be a likely yes on President Barack Obama’s ambitious budget. A Sen. Al Franken would be reliable Democratic vote on health care, tax increases on the rich, global warming legislation and virtually any other issue in which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finds himself hunting for a couple Republican votes.
With the Minnesota Senate seat in limbo for the foreseeable future, it means Reid will have to turn back to diplomacy at a time when partisan tensions are hardening and Republicans are newly unified on Capitol Hill. Moderate Democrats who opposed the omnibus are also beginning to look wobbly on spending measures, magnifying the absence of what would be a reliably liberal vote from Franken.
And adding to Franken's significance is the likelihood that moderate Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) could be tougher to win over as a swing vote, as he now seems certain to face a serious primary challenge from the right next year and thus less likely to vote with Democrats.
For now — until the results from a St. Paul court room come in — Democrats hold 58 seats in the Senate, meaning Democrats are so close, yet so far, from pushing through an unfettered liberal agenda.
“An individual senator has tremendous power,” Reid said Friday morning. “This isn’t anything new. This is the way it’s always been, and so I want everyone to recognize the Senate is an institution that works on comity.”
What’s making Democrats even more anxious is the recent suggestion by Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman that he may push for a revote, which would leave that Senate seat open for several months longer. This prospect has divided Minnesota voters and further angered Democrats.
“It’s certainly a statement of desperation,” Reid said when asked about Coleman’s suggestion. Republicans say that Coleman is fighting to make sure every vote is properly counted.
But Reid isn’t angry enough yet to spark the all-out war that would ensue should he try to forcibly seat Franken in the Senate, which would spark a GOP filibuster and potentially paralyze the Senate.
Coleman is challenging Franken’s 225-vote lead after the state conducted a hand recount, saying scores of absentee ballots were not counted and others were not tabulated properly. It’s unclear when a court ruling will be announced, but the loser would very likely appeal the case to the state Supreme Court, ensuring the seat stays vacant at least until April.
Even though Reid and other Democrats have suggested they may try to seat Franken by then, they are unlikely do so absent an official certificate from the state saying that Franken is the victor.
On Friday, the state Supreme Court denied a request from Franken to be awarded an election certificate despite Coleman's pending challenge to the statewide recount.
Both candidates have been preparing for a long fight, raising money since the election ended in November to help pay for legal bills and other fees from the recount and the election contest.
Republicans believe an elongated court battle is worth every penny if it prevents Democrats from getting that 59th seat in the Senate as Obama seeks action on his sweeping budget, health care reform, climate change legislation and a controversial labor union bill.
Coleman had more than $2 million in cash at the beginning of the year, but he is continuing to beef up his coffers, with the NRSC helping to raise money and GOP lawmakers pumping tens of thousands of dollars into his account to help aid his fight.
“We’re in completely; we’ll support Norm to the bitter end,” NRSC Chairman John Cornyn told POLITICO.
Cornyn said that Coleman has mentioned to him at “diffrent times” that a revote was a possibility, but he said his preferred path is to see Coleman win in court. If he loses, “then it’s a whole new ballgame.” Having the seat vacant has laid bare the limits of Democratic power, Cornyn says.
On the stalled omnibus spending measure, Democrats have tried to keep the bill intact by uniting to defeat all amendments in order to get the bill quickly to Obama’s desk.
But that unity has created cracks, costing Democrats support from a handful of members in both parties who ended up blocking the legislation. On Thursday night, Reid abruptly delayed a key procedural vote because he said they were one vote shy of 60 on the massive spending bill.
Republicans once again realize how easily Reid and Democrats can be stymied if they hold together.
“We didn’t need that vote last night; obviously they did,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said Friday of Franken.
But Kyl said that Democrats need to come to grips that their 58-41 majority only goes so far.
“If the leadership on the other side tries to jam our people in terms of what they want to accomplish, they will see Republicans sticking together,” Kyl said.
With no Franken, Reid will need to be more of a diplomat, negotiating with Specter and other moderates.
Asked if it would be harder for him to support the omnibus because of his political standing back home, Specter said, “That’s the one thought which hadn’t crossed my mind.”