Democrats Cling to Hope For 60 Seats in the Senate

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 2008

In a strange turn of events, the Democrats' pursuit of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate -- left for dead after last week's election results -- is now back on course.

The road to 60 seats will now go through an Anchorage election office, the Minnesota state courts, a runoff in Georgia next month and, ultimately, a tense caucus meeting next week in which Democrats must deal with a renegade lawmaker who is making noise about crossing the aisle to join Republicans.

"Let me beat you to the punch: Will we get 60 seats?" said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, cutting off reporters yesterday before they could ask the question everyone wants answered. "It's possible, but unlikely."

This seemed impossible last week, when Democrats appeared to gain six seats, to reach 57 for the 111th Congress starting in January, failing to secure a filibuster-proof majority for President-elect Barack Obama.

Now the terrain has changed in the three remaining undecided Senate races, where Republican incumbents finished ahead on election night but local rules have given Democrats the chance to add one to three seats to their majority.

In Alaska, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich pulled 814 votes ahead of Sen. Ted Stevens (R) late Wednesday night after officials tallied 59,000 votes that included absentee, early and questionable ballots whose validity was verified. An additional 40,000 votes are set to be counted in the days ahead.

Final results are expected Wednesday, with a certified winner on Dec. 1. That is one day before the runoff election in Georgia, where Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) led initial voting but did not clear the required 50 percent mark. As a result, he must once again face former state representative Jim Martin (D). Both the DSCC and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have aired TV ads attacking the opposing candidate.

The most legally complex battle is in Minnesota, where a recount process is about to start amid echoes of the controversial Florida 2000 presidential recount. Democrat Al Franken remains 206 votes behind Sen. Norm Coleman (R). More than 24,000 ballots that electronically recorded votes in the presidential race but did not record any vote in the Coleman-Franken contest will now be examined, and legal challenges have been lodged. Hundreds of lawyers on both sides are volunteering to help resolve the dispute.

So, more than a week after Election Day, the DSCC and NRSC are furiously raising money for advertisements and get-out-the-vote efforts in Georgia and for lawyers in Minnesota.

The first sign of clarity may come in Alaska. There, almost 100,000 ballots were left to count after the Nov. 4 election, mostly because the state's liberal absentee-voter laws allowed ballots to be postmarked up until that day.

Of the 40,000 votes that remain to be counted, about 15,000 come from the Anchorage region, which is considered Begich's base of support. But most of those votes will not be counted until Tuesday, said Gail Fenumiai, director of the state's elections division, so the lead in this race could switch back and forth.

If the margin of victory is less than 0.5 percent of the votes cast, the loser can ask for a state-funded recount, which would not be complete until January.

Even if Stevens wins reelection, he still must contend with the fallout from his felony conviction for not reporting more than $250,000 in gifts. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is asking his GOP colleagues to expel Stevens from their conference when they gather Tuesday to select their leadership team for next year.

And Stevens could also face expulsion hearings by the Senate ethics committee next year, should he defeat Begich. A Stevens expulsion or resignation next year would set up a special election to replace him within 90 days.

But Democrats have their own internal dispute that could derail their pursuit of 60 seats as early as next week.

Some Democrats want to punish Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who caucuses with them, for his support of the GOP presidential ticket by stripping his chairmanship of a key committee. But Lieberman has balked at such a move, amid whispers that he would instead caucus with Republicans.

The decision is expected Tuesday at a closed-door meeting of Senate Democrats, at the same time Republicans are dealing with Stevens's fate.

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