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.
The legal battle has reshaped the lives of its participants. Ben Ginsberg, a GOP lawyer who worked for George W. Bush in the 2000 recount, has spent much of his time since Election Day in Minnesota working with a five-person legal team to help Coleman win. Stephanie Schriock, who had taken a leave from the staff of Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) for a few months last summer to run Franken's campaign, is still on loan to Franken.
"The months after a presidential election are generally not the most exciting time for an election lawyer," said Ginsberg, who says he is so busy that he uses the time before and after the court proceedings to do work for his other clients.
In a move Coleman's critics say indicates that even he does not believe he can win, he has taken a part-time post with the Republican Jewish Coalition, serving as a consultant.
But Coleman says his calendar shows his commitment. He spends many of his days in court, watching as his lawyers plead his case and occasionally offering advice. The rest of the time, he is tracking legislation such as the stimulus package.
He says the one benefit is that he spends less time shuttling between Washington and Minnesota, allowing him to spend more time with his wife, although politics is never far from his mind.
"My wife doesn't like to go shopping with me, because I spend all my time with constituents talking to me," Coleman said. "They say, 'I'm praying for you; keep up the fight.' "
Much of Coleman's Washington staff is helping him and could return to their jobs if he prevails. Coleman says GOP leaders have promised he could return to the committees he served on during his first term, simplifying a transition back.
Franken has never lived in Washington or held a political post. He has met several times with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and discussed the committees on which he would like to serve, but he cannot hire a staff because he does not have funding for it.
Instead, he is meeting with experts on issues such as energy and health care, in the hope that he could make an immediate impact if seated.
And he says he is learning the procedures of the Senate, although he suspects they would be much easier to recall once he started enacting them.
"I think I have to be there," he said, comparing it to learning to ride a bike.
Realizing he would be a bit of a celebrity if he entered the Senate, Franken met in Washington last week with Tamara Luzzatto, who served as chief of staff to then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) when the former first lady entered the chamber in 2001.
"A lot of people have been sort of saying, 'You should really study Hillary's model of being a senator,' " Franken said. "She worked across party lines, wasn't grabbing the microphone."
Franken gets a daily legal briefing but has not come to the trial.
In Minnesota, "people are saying, 'I voted for you, and I hope you get there,' " Franken said. "They basically say they're rooting for me."
While Klobuchar is backing her fellow Democrat, Franken, she said she has a good relationship with both men and talks to them frequently about issues involving the state.
"It's a hard thing for both of them," she said.
The stalemate has complicated her life, but she is trying to make light of the situation.
"The one benefit of being the junior and senior senator from Minnesota is there is not friction in the delegation," she said. "We have lots of unity."