The Consequences of Franken

Dave Weigel makes a very solid and under-made observation that the consequences of Al Franken not being seated in January 2009 were dramatic on the ability of Democrats to pass their agenda in a timely and effective fashion.

If Franken had eked out another 1000 votes in Minnesota, or if Republicans simply decided not to keep suing to overturn the recount he won, the Democratic agenda would have been radically different. In January and February, the 59 — not 58 — Democrats in the Senate would have only needed to grab one Republican to pass the stimulus. That probably would have resulted in a larger stimulus bill, with extra billions of dollars (maybe $110 billion) going to tax cuts or spending. Democrats would have had the votes for card check, and gotten that out of the way quickly, while Ted Kennedy was still healthy. Just having that extra vote to play with when Obama’s popularity was peaking might have shaken up the whole schedule, gotten nominees like Dawn Johnson into their jobs, and led to more action in the Senate that pleased the Democratic base and — possibly — had a marginal impact on the economy. As it was, Democrats only had a functioning “supermajority” from September 2009 (Franken in the Senate, Paul Kirk in Ted Kennedy’s seat) to January 2010, and all they did with it was pass health care.

I think Weigel is glossing over the impact Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy’s illnesses had on the composition of the US Senate in 2009. For most of the year, 59 or 60 seats on paper meant 56 or 57 seats in reality. Franken would have made a huge difference had a been seated earlier. But it’s not as if Kennedy and Byrd were being rushed to the Senate floor from their hospital beds with any regularity as it was – it was never quite clear under what conditions men who were struggling to survive another day or week would risk their health to come cast a vote. That is, even with Franken being seated promptly, I don’t know that all the things Weigel says could have gotten done would have gotten done. Yes, I’d expect a bigger stimulus and more confirmations, but I still doubt Employee Free Choice would have happened or healthcare would have happened any quicker.

This actually all gets at a point that I’d like to see more commentators make. While Democrats had a 59 seat Senate in early 2009 and a 60 seat Senate after Specter switched parties at the end of April. But throughout that time Franken was not seated and Kennedy and Byrd were not there to vote with regularity.  The historic moment America was promised from a Democratic super majority in the Senate simply did not exist, at least not as advertised. There is certainly more that could have been done had all of the caucus been in place and healthy. Even in the reality which we experienced where those votes were not present, there could have been more done to pressure conservative Democrats to vote with the caucus – through incentives and threats and public campaigning. This isn’t an apologia of Reid or Obama for more not getting done due to structural hurdles. Rather, I see this as a valuable effort to remind people that part of the disappointment came from being sold what amounted to a bill of goods about what we could reasonably expect the US Senate to accomplish with the Democrats’ historic majority.

I don’t know why Democrats let Republicans obstruct Franken’s seating and have their be any political consequence for it. But it had real consequences, especially as two other Democratic senators were deathly sick. The inability for Democrats to do more substantial legislating in 2009 was directly, though not wholly, attributable to the absence of Franken. It’s going to cost Democrats electorally in November. There should have been a price to pay for it.

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