CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota that could give President Barack Obama’s Democrats the margin to pass legislation without Republican interference remains unfilled six months after the votes were cast.
Democrats, for now, show no indication they will try to force the issue in Washington by attempting to seat Al Franken, the comic turned politician who has been declared the winner by 312 votes over incumbent Republican Norm Coleman.
Instead the contest will be allowed to play out in Minnesota where a final resolution at the state level may come in about six or seven weeks. Coleman has asked the state’s supreme court to reconsider the ruling from a special judicial panel that declared Franken the winner.
What happens after Minnesota’s high court rules sometime in June is less clear. The loser could appeal to federal courts but the state’s Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, would be under pressure to certify a winner as required by state law.
“We are taking this one step at a time and are confident that the Minnesota Supreme Court will rule in our favor,” Coleman spokesman Tom Erickson said.
Jess McIntosh, spokeswoman for Franken, said: “We’re confident that the Minnesota Supreme Court will uphold what the State Canvassing Board and the Election Contest Panel have already confirmed -- that Al Franken won more votes in last November’s election.”
Senator Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democrats last month put Democrats only one seat shy of the 60 votes needed to pass their legislative agenda in the 100-seat Senate without Republican roadblocks, although senators often vote across party lines. Democrats already hold comfortable control over the U.S. House of Representatives.
Senate rules say the election winner needs to be certified by the state, although the U.S. Constitution does not require this step. Forcing the issue by seating Franken before the story has played out in Minnesota, however, would be seen as a power grab that could damage him, said David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Senate Democrats say they haven’t mapped out any “what if” strategies. If the state supreme court rules in favor of Franken, they expect Pawlenty to certify him as the winner, clearing the way for the Democrat to be seated.
If Franken wins the final state court decision in Minnesota, the Republican governor will be on the hot seat.
Schultz said if Pawlenty signs the certificate he would hurt his standing among Republicans as he weighs a possible run for president in 2012. Refusing to sign could put him in contempt of court and harm his chances of winning re-election as governor in 2010.
With Republicans able to slow legislation in the Senate with procedural hurdles, Senator John Cornyn, a party leader, has been quoted as threatening “World War III” if Democrats try to seat Franken before Coleman can pursue possible federal appeals that could take years.
But his spokesman Brian Walsh said on Saturday that Cornyn merely insists the election receive state certification before anyone is seated. Cornyn chairs the Senate Republican campaign committee.
As long as Franken is denied the seat, Obama and his fellow Democrats lack the 60 votes they would like to push the president’s ambitious agenda.
Whoever wins will go to Washington with a poor approval rating and the knowledge that they were elected with a minority of the votes cast.
A recent poll in the Star Tribune newspaper showed Franken with a 43 percent approval rating and Coleman with 38 percent. “Both really only have the support of the base of the two parties,” Schultz said.
There were three candidates in the November election, and Franken and Coleman each got 42 percent of the 2.9 million votes cast.
Franken meanwhile has assumed the role of winner-in-waiting, starting to hire staff, visiting the White House to meet with Vice President Joe Biden, and telling the Star Tribune he’s frustrated at not being in the Senate when important decisions are being made.
Additional reporting by Tom Ferraro in Washington; editing by Andrew Stern and Eric Beech