Senate Democrats put off plans to seat Franken

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid yielded to Republican threats and agreed on Monday not to immediately seat fellow Democrat Al Franken, whose razor-close victory in Minnesota faces legal challenges.

Democratic senatorial candidate Al Franken smiles as he encourages students to vote on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, November 4, 2008. REUTERS/Eric Miller

Senate Republicans had planned to disrupt the opening of the new Congress on Tuesday by blocking Franken’s swearing-in.

And in another ugly fight, Senate Democrats vowed to block, at least for now, the seating of fellow party member Roland Burris whose appointment by embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich carries a whiff of political scandal.

The 57-year old Franken, who gained fame as a writer and performer on the satiric Saturday Night Live television show, on Monday officially was declared the victor by a 225-vote margin by Minnesota state officials from nearly 2.9 million votes cast.

But lawyers for incumbent Republican Norm Coleman complained the recount was conducted unfairly and promised a court challenge that could take weeks to resolve.

“Shortly after Election Day, Coleman criticized Mr. Franken for wanting a recount and wasting taxpayer money. Now that it is clear he lost, Coleman should follow his own advice and not subject the people of Minnesota to a costly legal battle,” Jim Manley, spokesman for Reid of Nevada, said in a statement.

“However, there will not be an effort to seat Mr. Franken tomorrow,” Manley said.

If both Franken and Burris were sworn in, the Democrats’ majority in the normally 100-member Senate would swell to 59 -- their biggest margin in 30 years and just one short of the needed 60 votes to end Republican procedural roadblocks.


Many Democrats say Blagojevich’s appointment of Burris to the Senate is tainted since the governor has been charged with having earlier tried to sell the seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama after the November 4 elections.

But others, including some prominent black politicians, say it would be wrong to withhold the seat from Burris, who would take over from Obama as the only African-American member of the chamber.

“We’re on our way to Washington as a senator from the great state of Illinois,” Burris told reporters in Chicago on Monday before boarding a plane to the capital. “I’m hoping and praying that I will be seated.”

Reid, who plans to meet with Burris on Wednesday, said without elaboration this week there may be room to negotiate while the 71-year-old former Illinois attorney general said he would not be chased away easily.

“The appointment is legal ... what has been done here is legal. That’s legal. I am the junior senator from Illinois and I wish my colleagues from the press would recognize that,” Burris said, adding that he was nevertheless prepared to be turned away from Tuesday’s official swearing-in ceremony.

“My lawyers will take it from there; we’ll see what happens,” he said.

Burris declined to discuss the possibility of agreeing not to run for a full term in 2010 if Democrats permitted him to be a senator for the next two years -- a possible face-saving deal for all. “I can’t negotiate in the press,” Burris said.

In the Minnesota battle, Republicans said the declaration of Franken as the winner did not end the contest.

“The race in Minnesota is not over,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. “Under Minnesota law, an election certificate does not issue until litigation has been concluded. And it’s my understanding that a lawsuit will be filed ... contesting certain aspects of the accounting.”

Editing by Vicki Allen