The not-so-magical number

THE NOT-SO-MAGICAL NUMBER…. Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas responded to Sen.-Elect Al Franken’s (D) victory in Minnesota yesterday by immediately raising expectations for the majority party. “With their supermajority, the era of excuses and finger-pointing is now over,” Cornyn said.

If only it were that simple.

To be sure, Democrats on the Hill are no doubt thrilled to add another member to their caucus. And a 60-vote majority is the largest caucus either party has had in 35 years. Not bad for a party that had 45 senators just a couple of Congresses ago.

That said, while this is an impressive milestone for the Democratic Party, it’s hardly a breakthrough that will produce problem-free governing. Joshua Green’s take sounded right to me.

At least on paper [Democrats now have 60 seats, a filibuster-proof majority]. In reality, it’s not quite so simple. A quiet concern in the White House is the logistical difficulty of getting Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd, both of them long absent with serious health issues, to the Senate floor to cast a vote. This is putting additional pressure on conservative Democrats like Evan Bayh to toe the party line, and raising the importance of Olympia Snow and Susan Collins, considered to be the two most gettable Republicans on issues like health care.

Every vote on major initiatives brings its own challenges, and there’s never a guarantee that everyone in the Democratic caucus will vote together. Indeed, the opposite is true. For all the emphasis Republicans put on party loyalty and discipline, the 60-seat Democratic caucus includes Ben Nelson. And Joe Lieberman. And Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and their merry band of Blue Dogs. And two ailing and elderly legends whose health problems make attendance unlikely anytime soon.

One party strategist told Sam Stein, “Sixty is an imaginary number. You are always going to lose the Ben Nelsons and all the centrists. This is why 2010 proves to be so important because it can set a buffer for that 60 threshold.”

It’s best not to take this too far. Democrats are in the strongest position they’ve been in for practically a generation. Governing isn’t going to be easy from here on out, but it should be easier once Kennedy and Byrd are up to rejoining the chamber. All things being equal, it’s a lot better to be Harry Reid this morning than Mitch McConnell.

But this talk of the Democrats’ “magic number” is misplaced.