Reid realizes his 60 votes come with an asterisk

In theory at least, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will have nearly unlimited power to pass legislation now that Al Franken is set to become the junior senator from Minnesota.

Tuesday's Minnesota Supreme Court decision deeming Franken, the Democrat and former comedian, the winner of November's election means Franken will become the 60th Democrat in the Senate, giving Reid a filibuster-proof majority.

But as the Nevada Democrat pointed out Tuesday, he only has 60 votes "on paper," not in practice. And whether he can get all of the Democrats on the same page going forward will depend on what he's trying to get done in the Senate.

Reid was participating in a blue-ribbon panel on energy in Las Vegas on Tuesday morning when he found out about the court's unanimous decision in the Franken case.

Stopping the discussion, Reid held up his BlackBerry and said, grinning, "Hey guys, Franken wins 5-0 in Minnesota. So now I have 60 on paper."

There were cheers from those assembled, who included political, business and environmental leaders from around the state.

Republicans fear that their small minority will have no voice, and the Democrats will have unchecked power, with the 60-vote mark reached.

But in a later interview, Reid noted that two Democratic senators, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, have been severely ill and unable to vote.

Byrd was released from the hospital Tuesday after more than a month battling infection, his office announced, but it wasn't known whether the 91-year-old would return to the Senate.

Because of those missing votes, Reid said, "it's not a real 60."

In addition, he said, Democrats will not do everything on the Senate agenda on a party-line basis.

"With energy and with health care, we're going to try to do it on a bipartisan basis," he said. "That's the best way to go, and we think we can do that. We're sure going to try."

Reid noted that the Democrats in the Senate embody "a wide range of political philosophy," from conservative Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska to Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats but calls himself a socialist. The group also includes almost 25 new senators elected or appointed since 2006.

"I have an interesting caucus," Reid said. "I've been so fortunate that we've stuck together throughout my years as the Democratic leader." Given that range of views, "each issue that comes up, we have to work to come up with party unity, and we've done that and will continue to do that."

Despite gestures of bipartisanship by President Barack Obama, there have been few Republican votes for key legislation this year, but Reid said he hopes that will change.

"The president has reached out to the Republicans. I have reached out to the Republicans. And we have passed significant legislation -- we've been the most productive Congress since the first year of (the Franklin) Roosevelt (administration)," Reid said. "We haven't gotten a lot of Republican support, but enough. We hope in the months to come we get more than the handful we've gotten to this point."

When the Senate reconvenes Monday, its agenda will include major legislation on climate change and health care; spending and defense authorization bills; and the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor.

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@ or 702-387-2919.