When Al Franken is sworn in as the new junior senator from Minnesota next week, there will be endless talk about the long interregnum between Election Day and his oath-taking. People will chatter about his unlikely journey from Saturday Night Live funnyman to the U.S. Senate. And there will be even more talk about how his victory gives Democrats the 60 votes they need to end GOP filibusters and tighten their grip on the Senate. But nothing is quite what it seems.
While these things are all true, they will turn out to be less consequential than they now appear. For starters, the long battle leading up to Franken's victory is an oddity, but it's certainly not novel. In 1974 when Louis Wyman and John Durkin ended up in a dead heat for a New Hampshire Senate seat, it fell to the state Senate itself to sort things out -- the body took 11 months to decide it could not choose a winner and call for a new election. For much of that time, Durkin and Wyman sat at the back of the Senate chamber listening to the interminable debate about their fates.
Then there's the question of whether Franken's sense of humor will help or harm his effectiveness as a senator. This issue will probably turn out to be moot since he has spent the last two years trying to convince everyone how serious and unfunny he is. Even at his best, he is not the sharpest wit in the Senate. Indeed, Franken may be the second-funniest senator from Minnesota, since Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a certified laugh riot.
On the more serious issue of the Democrats' 60-vote threshold, much has already been said. But the supermajority will not be as potent a tool as some expect. Clearly, it will be held up as further evidence of the GOP's decline. But it will also raise the expectations among frustrated Democratic constituencies, who will see this development as the final piece of leverage needed to move the progressive agenda forward. With Barack Obama in the White House, and solid controlling majorities in both the House and the Senate, it will be harder to blame Republicans for stalling the Democratic agenda.
For Democrats, the 60 votes will be a curse as often as it is a blessing. While it gives them enormous flexibility to move important legislation, it also turns every Democratic senator into a kingmaker or a deal-breaker, and that is a recipe for chaos. The first rule of politics is that you must use what you have to get what you want. And so the personal wish list of every liberal senator will likely grow alongside the White House's ambitions, as Democrats may see the filibuster-proof majority as a discreet and urgent opportunity to move on everything from health care to immigration.
But the demands of individual senators will make it difficult for Majority Leader Harry Reid or President Obama to enforce the kind of discipline displayed during those lean Democratic years in the minority. For red-state Democrats, it will become especially important to establish that they are more than just a reliable vote for the White House or a tool of the national party. Veteran cranks like Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman will find it necessary to repeatedly renew their vows of independence -- read, contrariness -- by sticking it to the Democratic caucus on occasion.
The herding cats metaphor may perfectly apply to the task ahead for Reid. And he's dealing with some really big cats -- leopards, jaguars, tigers, mountain lions.
Franken's is the 14th seat that Democrats have picked up over the last two election cycles. The size of that swing almost matches the 16-senator gain that made Lyndon Johnson the majority leader in 1958, laying the groundwork for the passage of the progressive policies of the 1960s. But supermajorities were hard to manage even then. That same election cycle, Democrats picked up 49 seats in the House of Representatives. Even before the election, Sam Rayburn, the longtime House speaker, worried about managing all the potential new members.
In their 1966 book, Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak write that Rayburn lamented to Johnson and others: "I'd just as soon not have that many Democrats. … Believe me, they'll be hard to handle. It won't be easy."
Not easy then, not easy now.