Democrats in Congress Push Ambitious Agenda

Al Franken gives the party a filibuster-proof majority.

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A thousand miles from Capitol Hill last week, Democrat and former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken began packing his bags for Washington. After a contentious eight-month battle on the heels of a U.S. Senate race close enough to trigger an automatic recount, the Minnesota State Supreme Court declared Franken the winner Tuesday. He was sworn in this week by Vice President Joe Biden.

In the hours after the decision, Franken said he was humbled "by the closeness of this election" (312 votes) and added that he "can't wait to get started."

It was a sentiment heartily seconded by Senate Democrats as they begin to push what is shaping up to be a historically ambitious agenda, one that will test the cohesion of the Democratic Party and the power of the president.

Franken's victory adds one more name to their rolls and gives the party control of 60 seats—exactly enough to put an end to Republican filibusters. Democrats point out, however, that this works only when members stick together.

That last point will be pivotal as Congress returned from the July 4 recess this week. One of the first items on the Senate's agenda will be confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, which are scheduled to begin July 13. Republican senators were quick to insist that her bid suffered a blow after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that firefighters in New Haven, Conn., were unfairly denied promotions because of their race, overturning the decision of an appeals court that included Sotomayor.

Senate Democrats and President Obama declared themselves decidedly unfazed by the 5-to-4 decision, saying it held "little political significance." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he would nonetheless push for more time to review records of Sotomayor's work, including her time with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund from 1980 to 1992. Republicans are particularly interested in a 1981 memo by the group that argued against reinstating the death penalty in New York because it is imposed disproportionately on minorities.

Still, Democrats say this battle will be minor compared to the challenges that await them on the healthcare front. Congressional leaders are keenly aware that the party's bid to pull together a universal healthcare plan faces opposition not just from the other side of the aisle but from within their ranks.

The underlying questions remain how to cover the uninsured and whether to have a government option—the so-called public plan—that would exist alongside private coverage. The latter is almost universally rejected by Republican lawmakers, who complain that a government plan "would have unlimited access to taxpayer dollars and could operate at a loss indefinitely," said McConnell. This, in turn, would force private insurers out of business, the Kentucky Republican said: "Private health plans just couldn't compete." Millions of Americans could be forced out of their health plans, McConnell warned, "whether they like it or not."

But Democratic lawmakers say there is a strong desire among voters for a public option, too. Polls show more than 70 percent of voters support it. Republicans counter that a government option is too expensive (cost estimates run into the trillions) and point to voters' apprehensions about the federal deficit. Though many Democrats acknowledge questions about the hefty price tag of a public option, they add that they are now working hard to find ways to pay for it. They estimate that a tax on sugary sodas, for example, could bring in some $120 billion.

Costs to the consumer will figure prominently as Democrats buckle down for a battle over climate change legislation as well. House Democrats scored a sizable victory last month, pulling out a 219-to-212 nail-biter of a vote. But Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said this "razor thin" margin in the House "spells doom in the Senate."

Democratic congressional staffers concede that it will be a tough fight and that voter backlash is a concern. "I'm sure they're thinking about how many votes they're going to have to make in sensitive areas," notes one. But it is a battle, they say, that is worth the price in political capital. It is also, they add, one of many calculated risks they face in pursuit of an ambitious agenda.