Franken Stuck in Holding Pattern

Posted February 2, 2009 at 6:41pm

Despite suggestions to the contrary, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is unlikely to seat Minnesota Democrat Al Franken in advance of the 2008 Senate challenger’s victory being fully certified — both because of how the Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) affair unfolded and the promised threat of a Republican filibuster.

Reid has argued that his patience will eventually run out, and that he’ll move to install Franken as Minnesota’s junior Senator regardless of where things stand in that state’s ongoing electoral recount. Republican Norm Coleman — whose first Senate term expired in early January — is in the midst of contesting the results of his re-election bid as allowed for under state election law. Senior Democratic Senate aides contend Reid’s position hasn’t changed, and that the main factor delaying his move to seat Franken is the threat of GOP obstruction.

But Democratic operatives argue that more is involved, particularly the events surrounding the seating of Burris as President Barack Obama’s Senate replacement. Burris’ installation was initially held up by Democratic leaders on the grounds that his appointment by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) — who has since been impeached by the Illinois Legislature and removed from office — was not properly certified by state officials.

“Reid has too much egg on his face from Burris. With [Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)] dug in until the courts rule, I suspect Reid will just sit back and wait until the court has certified [the result], and then move to seat him,” one former Senate Democratic aide said.

Coleman led Franken the morning after the Nov. 4 election, and although his advantage shrunk, he continued to lead his Democratic challenger throughout the initial canvass of vote totals conducted by each precinct. Following a hand recount of all the challenged ballots, Franken emerged with a slim 225-vote lead out of about 3 million votes cast.

That result was certified by the state canvassing board but not approved by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R). Minnesota election law allows the candidate behind in the count to challenge the canvassing board results in state court, and that’s where the process stands.

Coleman’s legal team is arguing that some ballots were double-counted in Franken’s favor, while also claiming that the canvassing board recount process was inconsistent and unfair.

Pawlenty has said he will not sign off on Franken’s apparent win until Coleman’s challenge has concluded. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Senate race has spurred the Senate Republican Conference to its first serious filibuster threat of the 111th Congress. All 41 GOP Senators recently penned a letter to the Democratic leadership vowing to reject Franken’s installation before their former colleague has exhausted all of his legal efforts.

One senior Republican Senate aide confirmed Monday that any attempt by Reid to seat Franken at this point would be “fruitless.”

Reid hosted Franken in his Capitol office on Jan. 21, using the occasion to reiterate his contention that the former comedian and liberal radio talk-show host had defeated Coleman, and that the former GOP Senator’s continued challenge of the results is unreasonable and a waste of time. By having the meeting, at which Reid and Franken discussed Senate business, the Majority Leader appeared to try to lend an air of legitimacy to the Minnesota Democrat’s razor-thin lead.

As it stands, the Democrats hold a 58–41 Senate majority. A Franken victory would push the Democrats’ Senate hold to 59, just one vote shy of filibuster-proof.

“There’s no way that Coleman can win this,” Reid said the day of his meeting with Franken. “The numbers aren’t there. He should concede.”

Reid’s office declined to comment for this story. But a Democratic Senate aide said the Nevadan is “assessing the situation and will make a determination at some point in terms of how to proceed.” This aide said the threat of a GOP filibuster, not the controversy surrounding Burris’ lengthy and politically awkward installation, is the reason Reid is keeping his powder dry for now.

In part, because the Democratic majority is so pronounced even without Franken, Democratic and Republican operatives agree that any move by Reid to seat the Minnesota Democrat prior to Coleman exhausting his legal options as allowed for under state law would be problematic.

Doing so, they argued, would galvanize the GOP, both in the Senate and nationally, and could create more problems for Senate Democrats than the benefit Franken’s vote would provide them as they try to move Obama’s legislative agenda. The move would likely be seen by many — particularly Republicans but possibly independents as well — as overtly partisan.

“The last thing Democrats want is for Republicans to turn Minnesota into the GOP version of Florida 2000,” said one Democratic operative based in Washington. “Franken’s margin is so close that he needs to be viewed as the legitimate holder of that seat, and that means letting the process play out.”