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No Easy Path For Senate Dems Despite Franken Win

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

So, with Al Franken joining them, will Senate Democrats have the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster? Well, joining us now is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. And, Ron, let's do the numbers. How many Democrats are there in the Senate?

RON ELVING: With Al Franken you have 58 senators duly sworn, calling themselves Democrats and that includes Arlen Spector, who switched parties earlier this year. And then you can add two Independents who usually vote with the Democrats, that's Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. And that would give them the 60 needed to cut off debate, as you say, end a filibuster if...

SIEGEL: If all...

ELVING: All 60 have to be able to vote.

SIEGEL: And what is the likelihood, first of all, that all 60 would be there to vote?

ELVING: It's been a while since we've seen Ted Kennedy in the chamber. His cancer prognosis is problematic. We also have Robert C. Byrd, who's 91 years old and just came home from the hospital today. He's been suffering from a staph infection. But beyond that you've got perhaps a dozen members of the Senate caucus in the Senate who are centrists, or moderates or even outright conservatives on some issues. And you also have a handful of mavericks who can be kind of unpredictable.

SIEGEL: Yeah, the notion of party discipline in the U.S. Senate is - it's...

ELVING: Oxymoron.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: An oxymoron. As a practical matter, I mean, would the Democrats want to have, maverick or not, would they want to have the authority to run the chamber without the threat of a Republican filibuster?

ELVING: In theory, of course, surely they would, but the last time the Democrats had 60 votes was during the Carter administration, and if we think back on that era, it kind of speaks for itself. The divisions within the party were so bad that it seemed as though Jimmy Carter was at odds with his Senate as often as not. And in practice, the Senate works best when it's least partisan -when skillful leaders put together supermajorities that include members from both parties.

SIEGEL: How would you describe the Democrats in this Senate? Are they more of a unit than previous Democratic majorities, less so?

ELVING: In some senses they are more of a unit. In 1979, 30 years ago, there were still 18 southern Democrats and they were a force, often like a party unto themselves. In the current Senate the number of southern Democrats is down to seven.

SIEGEL: There's been a great realignment (unintelligible).

ELVING: Tremendous realignment that began in 1980. And so the center of gravity is no longer in Dixie and the party is more consistently liberal.

SIEGEL: Let's say you're the leader of the Senate Democrats, is there any downside to having a 60-vote majority and being able to block any filibuster?

ELVING: Yes. And I think the downside really does focus on the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, because now the onus is on him to pass legislation in a form that most Democrats prefer, and that's going to be a big influence all through the legislative process. So over on the House side you've got committee chairs who are very tired of hearing about the filibuster and how tough life is in the Senate, and they're going to want to be much more aggressive and they're going to tell Harry Reid to get his Democrats in line.

And a lot of those individual Democrats over there in the Senate, each one can now be a deal breaker. That's talking about anybody who happens to be on the right on a particular issue and it's also talking about those on the left such as Al Franken and some of the others who were already there.

SIEGEL: And apart from such senators as the two senators from Maine, there aren't that many Republicans across the aisle who are likely to be partners in legislation.

ELVING: That is correct. The two women from Maine, on certain issues you might reach out to a couple of others. We've got some people leaving, like George Voinovich, who may want to be part of something. You've got some other people who are very interested in health care, might be with the Democrats on certain issues.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.