Byrd illness shoes fragile majority
Sen. Robert Byrd was hospitalized Tuesday after falling at his home – the latest health setback for the nation’s longest-serving senator and another frustration for Democrats yet to enjoy the full strength of the 60-vote majority they won in the 2008 elections.
Democrats appeared to reach the magical, filibuster-defying 60-vote threshold when Al Franken was declared the overtime winner of the extended Minnesota Senate race in June.
But by then, Byrd was largely absent from the Hill; a brief hospital stay in May stretched into nearly two months after he suffered a staph infection. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) was also too ill then to be a presence on Capitol Hill.
Kennedy’s death last month reduced the Democrats’ majority to 59-40. And if Byrd’s latest health problems persist – he was hospitalized Tuesday so that doctors could monitor a possible infection – the Democrats will be down to 58 for the near term.
“Every vote is monumental when you’re right at the number,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), majority whip. “We nominally have 59. With Massachusetts, we may have 60. With Sen. Byrd’s absence, we may be back to 59. It’s a see-saw battle that we’ve been fighting for a long time.”
Massachusetts Democrats are racing to change state law to allow Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to name an interim senator to replace Kennedy – likely in time for critical upcoming votes on health care legislation. But that advantage could essentially be nullified if Byrd can’t return for votes.