The Importance of Being Franken

March 27, 2009 1:19 p.m.
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If you’re a regular reader, you know that Eric Kleefeld’s done a remarkable job tracking the ins and outs and absurdities and melodramatics of the court fight that may or may not settle the disputed election between Norm Coleman and Al Franken.

While that case is being decided, though, it’s worth reflecting on the significance of Minnesota’s junior senate seat–about how important that seat might have been if Franken had won a more decisive victory (or if the recount hadn’t taken so long), and how things will change when that victory is finally affirmed. Indeed, Franken himself may prove more important to advancing President Obama’s agenda than will just about any other single issue.Earlier this month, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel basically gave that game away. In an interview with the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza, Emanuel argued that stimulus critics like Paul Krugman were misplacing their focus. “No disrespect to Paul Krugman,” Emanuel went on, “but has he figured out how to seat the Minnesota senator?”

Leaving Krugman out of this, how can one man (Franken) make such a difference? Well, consider the stimulus bill. It passed the Senate after a group of centrists had pared it down enough to suit the arbitrary tastes of Republicans Susan Collins, Olympia Snow, and Arlen Specter, who ultimately voted to end debate and pass the legislation. Only two of them were absolutely necessary, though, and if Franken had been seated, Democrats would have needed only one. That would have been a much easier task than winning all three, or even two, and probably would have meant fewer cuts and concessions when what the bill needed was more and more spending.

And, of course, there will be other fights. What ultimately goes into the budget is still an open question–but if it leads to a reconciliation process, and if Democratic leaders put one or more of Obama’s main priorities into the resulting bill, they will not only draw the ire of Republicans. They’ll face opposition from within their own party.

A reconciliation bill only needs 51 votes to pass, but at the same time it can in theory be extremely controversial. Vice President Dick Cheney cast a tie-breaking reconciliation vote in December 2005 at a time when Republicans held 55 seats in the Senate. And in recent days several Democrats have signaled that they might vote against a reconciliation bill if it contains big ticket items like health reform and climate change legislation. If they stick to their guns, Franken’s vote could be key.

Then there are the banks. The Obama administration has decided upon a controversial plan for bailing out the country’s major, ailing financial institutions, that involves partnering with smaller institutions to buy distressed assets and then backstopping most of their potential losses. The story behind that plan is deeply complicated, but one important element of it is that many other options (most notably nationalization) would probably have required congressional action–and that means, ultimately, a 60-vote supermajority.

Writing in The Week, economist Brad DeLong addressed this very issue:

Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio is the sixtieth vote in the Senate–the one required to close off debate, avoid a filibuster and move to a vote on final passage of a bill. If the Obama administration wants to do anything that requires legislative action, it needs Voinovich and 59 other senators on board. The White House’s legislative tacticians appear to think that 60 senators are not on board–especially after last week’s AIG scandal. The Geithner Plan is something the administration can do on authority it already has. Doing more would require a congressional coalition that, at present, does not exist.

The situation’s actually worse than that. Because, of course, even when they’re all whipped together, Democrats don’t have 59 votes. They have 58.

All of which is to say that our (Eric’s) coverage of the Franken-Coleman imbroglio has great significance beyond courtroom drama and partisan grudges. It has (and will continue to have) great meaning to most of the issues we cover here at TPMDC. So don’t let the relative quiet fool you. It’s the Democrats’ most pressing issue and, ironically, the issue over which they have the least power.

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