With newly minted Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania in their ranks, Obama's party now controls 59 seats in the upper chamber. When Al Franken of Minnesota is finally seated, Democrats will have 60, the number needed to squash a filibuster and move to a final vote.
Sixty is the magic number in the Senate -- but only if the party can muster 60 votes. Sixty members alone doesn't do it, a point emphasized by conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska when asked by the Huffington Post what Specter's move does to his own position as a power broker in the Senate.
"Nothing. Sixty members doesn't translate to 60 votes, so it doesn't really change anything for me," he said. "The automatic assumption that people will take from this is, 'Ah, things are changing.' And maybe they will, but it's not automatic."
There is, however, one automatic change that comes with having 60 votes. The greatest power that the minority has in the Senate is the power to grind things to a halt. By filibustering, the GOP not only blocks the piece of legislation it's opposing, but also any other action that is bottle-necked behind it. The threat to grind things to a halt is one that the majority takes seriously. It gives the minority veto power over small (but important) pieces of legislation that the majority wants but can't afford to lose several weeks pushing. With 60 votes, the majority can push through those smaller measures over the objections of the GOP.
It's a point Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat, underscored. "The bottom line is, it's still not going to be easy. This is a bold, comprehensive agenda. But the sort-of-just-doing-a-filibuster-at-every-whim to block us is not there and that makes legislating a lot easier," he said.
Nelson said that Specter's voting pattern going forward will determine how significant his switch is. "I'm sure his voting patterns will be comparable as a Democrat as they were when he was a Republican," he said. "I think only time will tell when you see whether there's a voting pattern that develops."
Ryan Grim is the author of the forthcoming book This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America