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What 60 Democratic Senate Votes Really Means: Welcome to the Age of Ben Nelson

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Following yesterday's final confirmation of Al Franken as the new senator from Minnesota, thus ushering in the Al Franken Decade 20 years too late, all the talk on last night's political shows was of the magic number 60. Of course, multiple guests on all the cable talk channels were quick to point out that the new number of Senate Democrats was mostly a formality. After all, over the last 15 years or so, the filibuster has become a matter of course in the Senate rather than the exception to the rule. Almost any major bill requires ending a filibuster before a vote can be taken, and that means all the GOP needs to do is convince one Democrat to cross the aisle.

But that explanation of the meaning behind the numbers is only half right. Getting to 60 Democratic votes in the Senate does represent a seismic shift in power. Previously, it was up to the Democrats to keep their people in line and, at the same time, woo a moderate Republican (read: the women from Maine) into joining the Democratic ranks on a cloture vote. But that is no longer the case. Now, it is the Republicans who must keep their people in line and convince a Democrat to come to the other side. That may seem like a small shift, but it has could have big implications.

Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe lost a huge amount of power yesterday. As of June 29, the battle to get to 60 votes focused primarily on them. But now, the focus will be on moderate Democrats rather than moderate Republicans. Now, while the senators from Maine still have an important position in ending a filibuster, the main focus of entreaties to stay with the home team or play ball with the opposing side will be folks like Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Nelson is the most obvious target, as he has broken ranks more often than other Democrats in the past. But other potential flips include Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Evan Bayh in Indiana, and several more. The long list of moderate Senate Democrats makes flipping just one of them far easier than the Democrats' job of grabbing one of the Maine senators: Perhaps that's one silver lining to the GOP's transformation into a hardline conservative party with few moderate voices, though the trade-off -- the GOP's status as a relatively small minority party -- makes that silver lining hardly worthwhile.

Going forward, the result in real terms of this shift in power will be minuscule, in terms of effects on major legislation. According to Howard Dean's Web site that tracks support for a public option for health care among U.S. Senators, 37 Democrats are for it, one (Mary Landrieu) is against it, and the rest -- 22 Democratic senators -- have not announced a definite position. Those 22 are mostly in the same position, worrying about re-election in Republican-majority or at least deeply divided states, though there are a few notable exceptions in which a Democrat from a reliably Democratic state has still not announced support for a public option (e.g. Joe Lieberman, Diane Feinstein). With such a huge number of Democrats to target -- as opposed to the pair of Republicans that could be targeted by Democrats -- the GOP should still be able to block passage of any significantly progressive legislation. (Update: Joe Lieberman has come out against a public option on health care, as reported on HuffPo here. I'll refrain from commenting further, and just let that speak for itself.)

However, the Age of Ben Nelson may not last long. While the Democrats will be hard-pressed to keep all their seats in the House of Representatives in 2010, the next cycle could easily be the third in a row that sees Democratic gains in the Senate. Retiring Republicans in Missouri, Ohio, and New Hampshire could all mean Democratic pick-ups, and while the open seat in Florida looks more and more like an easy win for Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, that only adds to the two moderate Republicans sitting in the Senate now. Add to that the fact that the most likely incumbent to lose is Republican Jim Bunning of Kentucky (though Democrats may face a bruising primary there), and the 2010 elections start looking pretty damn rosy for the Democrats.

With 62 or 63 seats in the Senate, a few of those waffling Democrats can be allowed to break ranks to save face. Once that happens, the filibuster as a weapon of mass obstruction becomes a dull weapon indeed.