Illuminated by the sparks flying in the partisan Senate battle over the $1.17 trillion stimulus package is the critical Minnesota election contest between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman, which is causing major headaches for Democrats.
Senate rules require at least three-fifths of its members to vote to shut off debate, thereby bringing a bill up for a vote. Ordinarily, that means Senate Republicans need 41 votes to put the brakes on legislation via filibuster.
With the Franken-Coleman seat still up for grabs, however, the U.S. Senate has only 99 seated members. Because three-fifths of 99 equals 59.4 votes, the bar for cloture still will be set at 60 votes.
The bottom line: The GOP could suffer the defection of one senator and still have the 40 votes it needs in the current Congress to prevent the stimulus bill from becoming law.
If, on the other hand, Al Franken were a U. S. senator, Democrats would be one vote closer to getting their way on any legislation. “Our burden would be a little lighter,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
The evolving status of New Hampshire GOP Sen. Judd Gregg could have a big impact as well. If Gregg, who is considered a strong fiscal conservative, becomes the next Commerce secretary as expected, it may not alter the political balance in the short term — but probably will put Republicans on even more perilous ground in the future.
Assuming Gregg takes the job and is confirmed, New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, is expected to appoint a Republican caretaker to fill the job for two years.
That means a wide-open race for the seat in 2010, in a state that has shifted much more toward the blue column in recent elections. Democrats are already rallying behind New Hampshire Rep. Paul Hodes for the job, who many say would be a strong favorite to win the seat in 2010.
“Democrats are quickly lining up behind Rep. Paul Hodes as their nominee, and Republicans have no obvious candidate to step in for Gregg,” observes Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post.
Gregg probably would remain in the Senate long enough to vote on the stimulus bill, and pundits openly question whether Gregg would oppose Obama on the bill, knowing the president was about to become his new boss.
With each twist and turn, it seems, the outcome in Minnesota becomes more critical.
“The national significance of the Minnesota race has just been kicked up a notch," explains University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs told the Minnesota Star-Tribune. "With the Gregg situation, Minnesota is emerging as a game changer."
The Minnesota election contest is expected to continue for several more weeks, and could also be appealed to federal courts. Depending on the appeals of any decision, the winner may not be seated until mid-March.
With Franken clinging to a narrow 225-vote lead, and the Obama administration anxious to push through an ambitious legislative agenda, it appears to political operatives that the GOP would want to exhaust every option for appeal available to Coleman.
As Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., told the Star-Tribune: “Sometimes being one or two away is like being 100 members away. We need that Franken vote, and it’s critical we get it fast.”
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