Would-Be Senators From Minn. Describe Life in Election Limbo

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009

In the bustling halls of the Hart Senate Office Building, one office remains resolutely dark. As a new class of freshmen arrived, its nameplate was taken down. Now only the seal of the state remains near the door, as the two men who lay claim to the office -- called "Senator" and "Senator-elect" by their supporters -- wage a legal battle over who won the race for the Senate seat from Minnesota.

Trapped in a three-month-plus limbo, comedian Al Franken (D) and Norm Coleman (R), whose term ended in January, cannot speak on the Senate floor, vote on legislation or help their constituents.

Instead, they remain in an uncomfortable and disputed zone between senator and non-senator.

The state's canvassing board last month declared Franken the winner of a recount by a 225-vote margin, but Coleman has sued to challenge the results, placing the final outcome of November's election before the courts, in a trial that could last several more weeks.

With no winner declared, Franken spent two days in Washington last week learning about arcane Senate procedures such as the anonymous hold, while his Democratic colleagues shaved billions of dollars from their stimulus proposal in the hope of capturing from Republicans one of the votes that Franken otherwise could have provided. Earlier, as the Senate debated one of the most expensive bills in history, Franken was grounded in his home state watching streaming video of the court proceedings involving the Minnesota seat on http://TheUpTake.org.

Coleman, for his part, worked the phones last week from the Washington offices of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, up the street from the Capitol, and held a fundraiser Wednesday for his legal effort that drew more than a dozen Republican senators, several of whom directed their political action committees to donate the $10,000 maximum to his post-election campaign.

"It's a little difficult and frustrating," Coleman said in a phone interview.

That holds true for the residents of Minnesota, as well, who now find that when a Social Security check comes late or they need some other service, there is no one to call but Amy Klobuchar (D), the only senator from the state with a working staff. Klobuchar said she is considering asking the Senate to give her more staffers if the legal battle between Franken and Coleman drags on, because she is getting almost double the requests that she normally does.

Franken smiles but leaves aside his funnyman persona when asked about his plight.

"I'm really eager to get to work," Franken said last week, as he dragged a black carry-on bag to the offices of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he works when he is in town. "Having a 59th vote would have changed the dynamic" on the stimulus, he said, making reference to the 60 Democratic votes needed in the Senate to prevent a filibuster by Republicans.

Coleman said, "These are the most challenging economic times of my life, and I want to be involved in this discussion," adding: "What I'm left with is the op-ed."

After a recount lasting more than two months put Franken ahead, the legal issues continue. Coleman is challenging the election results by alleging voting irregularities, including the exclusion of thousands of absentee ballots. He is arguing for the inclusion of absentee ballots received after Election Day and other procedures that allow the counting of more votes, while Franken says most votes have already been properly counted. The trial started Jan. 26.

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