Sixty Democrats … or 58?

By Lindsey Ellerson

Jul 8, 2009 4:01pm

ABC News’ Jonathan Karl reports: Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., was sworn in this week with much fanfare as the 60th Democrat in the Senate.  With 60 Senators, Democrats have something they haven't had since the 1970s: enough votes to block Republican filibusters. Or not. In reality, when it comes to actual votes, Democrats right now may only have 58 senators.  That's because the two most senior Democrats are sidelined with illness — and nobody can say when they will return. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who is suffering from brain cancer, hasn't cast a vote since March 26. And 91-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., hasn't voted since May 13.  Senator Byrd's condition is something of a mystery. On May 15th, he hospitalized for what his Senate office called "a minor infection."  His hospitalization, however, was not disclosed until May 18th.  A couple weeks later, his Senate office released a statement saying he had contracted an additional staph infection and would need to remain in the hospital. Byrd was finally released on June 30.    So when will Byrd return to the Senate? "When his doctors and family say he can return," says Jesse Jacobs, a Byrd spokesman. "That is all I know right now."  It seems as if none of Byrd's colleagues have any idea about his true condition or whether he will return to the Senate.  Senator Majority Harry Reid's spokesman Jim Manley won't say when the last time Reid spoke to Byrd.  His fellow West Virginia Democrat, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, recently told Roll Call that he hasn't talked to Byrd for weeks, adding, "nobody has."    Not quite nobody. Gov. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., says the governor spoke to Byrd via telephone yesterday.  Matt Turner, Manchin's communications director, tells ABC News the conversation was about West Virginia "transportation projects."  Asked when he expects Byrd to return to the Senate, Turner told ABC News, "I have no idea." Kennedy's office also cannot say when he will return to the Senate.  "He is balancing his treatment with his work on health care," said Kennedy press secretary Anthony Coley, who added that Kennedy has been in contact with his staff via telephone and that "he has good days and he has not-so-good days."  Senate Democrats hope that when it comes time for a final vote on health care reform, Kennedy's signature issue, that he will be able to make it to cast his vote. But nobody can say for sure if he'll be healthy enough to even do that.

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