Harry Reid's Next Headache: Mavericks
Now that Senate Democrats have finally hit the magic number of 60 with Al Franken's election in Minnesota, they'll be expected to start producing big time for the White House and the party. But doing so will depend on whether Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and his assistant, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, can keep all 60 together when the pressure is on. Each must be packing extra Mylanta. There'll be some heartburn, for sure.
When Franken is sworn in to the Senate early next week, he'll be heartily cheered by the Democratic caucus for giving them the 60th vote required to terminate Republican filibusters and proceed to up-or-down simple majority votes on just about anything before the Senate that is controversial. (Two independents, Joe Lieberman, Conn., and Bernie Sanders, Vt., caucus with the 58 Democrats.)
Figure on Franken being a very reliable vote for Reid and Durbin. His politics are left-of-center to begin with. Plus he won't want to act as a maverick or appear unpredictable at all, for a good while, anyway. He'll be studying issue briefs and taking cues and will appear glad as ever to be in the Senate and to get some worthwhile committee assignments, including possibly the Judiciary Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel. Reid has kept a seat open on both awaiting Franken's arrival.
Being able to count on Franken will be nice for Reid, but he'll have other vote-counting woes on big-ticket items coming up, i.e. health care, energy, domestic spending bills and immigration. For one thing, Reid won't always be able to count on two veteran Democrats who are in struggling health -- Ted Kennedy, Mass., and Robert Byrd, W.Va. They may not be available on short call for important votes. Even harder to keep on board will be a half dozen other Democrats who for different reasons will insist on compromises before helping to move legislation.
The expression "herding cats" aptly describes what Reid and Durbin have to do. Both are very good at whipping votes in the caucus, but the Senate is by nature run by agreement not by dictate, and Democrats historically are more diverse and therefore harder to control than Republicans. Reid will make entreaties occasionally to the very small remaining band of moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and maybe retiring George Voinovich of Ohio, but he'll be focusing more on his own caucus to advance the agenda.
Maverick Democrats to watch:
Arlen Specter, Pa. A party switcher new to the Democratic caucus, he could be decisive on health care and especially on how a public provider option is crafted or if it is included at all. He'll be needed also on close votes on federal judicial nominations later on. Specter is by nature ornery, a touch irascible, often unpredictable and also one who relishes his maverick medals. But he's up for reelection and Democratic leaders are working to prevent a primary challenge. He'll have to be careful in picking his maverick moments, lest he cause an outcry from Democrats at home.
Max Baucus, Mont. As chairman of the Finance Committee, Baucus is taking on the role of central crafter of health care legislation, even more so than other committee chairs with health care jurisdiction. If a deal is reached, Baucus will have his name on it, and others in the caucus will have to agree with compromises he strikes to bring at least a few Republicans on board and to keep costs controlled.
Ben Nelson, Neb. Nelson, a former governor, hails from a very "red" state and is especially concerned about deficit spending and government growth. He played a crucial role in getting the stimulus bill passed after exacting a reduction of tens of billions in the price tag, to well below what the White House wanted.
Blanche Lincoln, Ark. Lincoln is up for reelection to a third term in a southern state Republicans would love to recapture. She's the definition of a centrist and has often crossed party lines. In the past she voted with Republicans to curb class action lawsuits, pass free trade agreements that Democrats opposed, end a filibuster on permanently repealing the estate tax and shield gunmakers from lawsuits when their products are used in crimes.
Evan Bayh, Ind. Like Nelson and Lincoln, Bayh, also represents a largely red state, although it narrowly voted for Obama. Bayh, who is also up for reelection, is nearly a household name in his state. A former governor and the son of another Indiana Senator, Bayh is probably safe for reelection, but he can't be counted as an easy vote. Like Nelson, Bayh does not want to be portrayed as enabling runaway spending.
To a lesser degree, others that Reid and Durbin also may have to watch closely on key votes include three-term Sen. Mary Landrieu, La., freshmen Sen. Jon Tester, Mont., and appointed Sen. Michael Bennet, Colo. None of the three are considered mavericks by nature but may require some persuasion to get them to vote with the caucus. Landrieu and Tester were both very narrowly elected, and Bennet may have a highly competitive race next year in a state that still has a large conservative Republican base but that has been trending a bit more Democratic in recent election cycles.