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The end of Norm Coleman's court challenge is good news in itself, but what will it mean for the committee structure in the Senate?  Will the fact that Senator Al Franken (oooh, that sounds good) puts the Democrats at the 60-seat level justify adding additional Democratic members to any of the committees, to reflect this new makeup?

We'll know soon, as Sen. Franken is expected to take his seat early next week.  But until then, let's engage in some wild speculation as to what it might mean.  

Of most immediate concern, what about the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions?  This key committee, chaired by the ailing Ted Kennedy, is currently laboring over the all-important draft health care legislation.  Prior reports have indicated that a position on the HELP Committee, along two other (perhaps less important) committees, have been reserved for Sen. Franken, as reported some time ago by Kossack BooMan23:

Now that I know what committee assignments senators Mike Bennet (D-CO) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) received I can, by a process of elimination, tell you what committee assignments Al Franken will get when he is finally sworn into office.  Al Franken will serve on the:

   Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
   Special Committee on Aging
   Committee on Indian Affairs

I don't think I need to tell you that these are pathetic committee assignments.

It may be that if Sen. Franken had been seated when he should have been, his assignments would have been better.  But that seat on the HELP Committee is particularly important at this particular time.  It has been reported that there may be a deadlock on the Committee, due to the tightness of the numbers, the personalities and predilictions of the members, and the absence of a very charismatic leader.

Here's the way the current membership of HELP shakes out, as set forth on the Committee's web page:

Democrats by Rank

Edward Kennedy (MA)
Christopher Dodd (CT)
Tom Harkin (IA)
Barbara A. Mikulski (MD)
Jeff Bingaman (NM)
Patty Murray (WA)
Jack Reed (RI)
Bernard Sanders (I) (VT)
Sherrod Brown (OH)
Robert P. Casey, Jr. (PA)
Kay Hagan (NC)
Jeff Merkley (OR)

Republicans by Rank

Michael B. Enzi (WY)
Judd Gregg (NH)
Lamar Alexander (TN)
Richard Burr (NC)
Johnny Isakson (GA)
John McCain (AZ)
Orrin G. Hatch (UT)
Lisa Murkowski (AK)
Tom Coburn, M.D. (OK)
Pat Roberts (KS

To save you the trouble of counting, that's 12 Dem's (counting Sanders, of course), 10 Repub's.  In addition, the esteemed Majority Leader has made what has been described in as a "temporary appointment" to HELP:

At Reid's request, the Senate temporarily appointed Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., to the panel, supposedly pending the result of the Minnesota Senate race. For the time being, this means that Rhode Island will now have two senators helping to shape what most likely will be the most sweeping health care reform bill in recent history.

The exact nature of Whitehouse's "temporary appointment" was less than clear.  As noted above, Sen. Whitehouse does not even appear on the roster of members included on the Committee's website.  Sen. Whitehouse lists the assignment on his website, and even discusses his interest in health issues, but says nothing specific aboout the doings of the HELP Committee itself.  Curious.  But, in any event, even if Sen. Whitehouse is not a real member of HELP for all purposes, a 12-10 split should be enough, right?  

Well, maybe not.  Recent reports indicate that, in Kennedy's absence, the Committee has been floundering.  It published a draft bill that did not contain a public option, and the CBO came back with an analysis of that bill that showed high cost and insufficient improvement in the numbers of uninsured.  On balance, releasing that draft bill was probably a mistake.  In theory, the addition of a public option, combined with taking some sharp pencils to the budget numbers in the Senate Finance Committee, should have gone a long way to address the CBO's concerns. But the Finance Committee has been bogged down by the search for a "bipartisan" approach, and the HELP Committee itself has been unable to bust loose a bill containing a public option.

The main reason for the latter failure appears to be Freshman Senator Kay Hagan, a servant of the people with long and deep ties to her state's healthcare industry who has already, in her short Senate career, attracted attention by being the lone Democrat who voted against the tobacco regulation bill recently signed by the President.  As noted in one progressive blog, Hagan's failure to support the public option:

shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. In her years in the NC Senate, especially as Appropriations Chair, Senator Hagan developed a reputation as a very conservative business-friendly Democrat. Back in 2005 she even pushed for a budget that cut taxes on the wealthiest North Carolinians while removing Medicaid coverage from 65,000 aged, blind, and disabled people in poverty.

With Sen. Hagan against a strong public option, the best that could be done on a vote on that option, even if Sen. Kennedy were able to make it to a vote) would be an 11-11 split, not enough to pass.  What might be even more amazing is that even the potential back-up position, a co-op option (a "public" option that takes the form of insurance offered through non-profit co-ops), may also be out of reach (even assuming Hagan would support it, which she has not said) because Sen. Sanders is against that option.  Once again, the best that can be produced is an 11-11 tie.  

The addition of Sen. Franken to the HELP Committee is thus potentially game-changing.  With Sen. Franken, and a 13-10 split on the committee, the Democrats can afford one holdout to the public option, and approve a bill over her "no" vote, if she were to persist in that position.  That assumes, of course, that Sen. Kennedy can make it to the vote.

Does the arrival of Sen. Franken have any implications beyond the HELP Committee?  We can hope.  A little historical perspective here:

The last time the Democrats had a 60-seat majority in the Senate was in the 94th Congress (1975-1977). At the time, they had a six-seat advantage on Appropriations and Commerce, a four-seat advantage on Agriculture, Environment and Public Works, Finance, and Armed Services, and a three-seat advantage on Foreign Relations, Banking and Judiciary.

Bigger majorities in the whole Senate justify bigger majorities on the committees.  Morover, since the committees were constituted, there have been two events affecting the makeup of the Senate:  the defection of Sen. Spector, and now the certification of Sen. Franken.  Of course, Spector's realignment had something of a self-correcting effect on some committees -- the ones he was on -- since Dem. representation increased and Repub. representation simultaneously decreased.  These include the  Appropriations, Judiciary, Veterans Affairs, Aging, and Environment and Public Works; on each of these, Dem margins went up by two on these important committees.

Readjusting other committees to reflect a 60-member majority is now one possibility, one that the Republicans would be certain to resist.  There are certainly other possibilities:  perhaps senators on committees other than HELP are regarded by the leadership as "placeholders" for Franken, and he could take a place on such committees as Judiciary, as has been rumored:

Sen. Ron Wyden D-Ore., for instance, was widely understood to be a potential placeholder for Franken on Judiciary

In his "victory" statement, Sen. Franken specifically mentioned looking forward both to helping the President's agenda on health care and participating in the effort to confirm Judge Sotomayor.  

In time, and pretty soon, we shall certainly see.  But the newest Senate member will, it appears, have an immediate impact, and hopefully a major continuing effect for the remainder of this Congress.

Originally posted to southriver on Tue Jun 30, 2009 at 04:44 PM PDT.

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