By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
The Minnesota Supreme Court yesterday declared comedian-turned-politician Al Franken the winner of the state's U.S. Senate race, ending an eight-month-long election saga and giving Democrats a 60-seat majority that theoretically would allow them to block GOP filibusters.
In a unanimous ruling, the court rejected Republican Norm Coleman's legal arguments that some absentee ballots had been improperly counted and that some localities had used inconsistent standards in counting votes. The ruling led Coleman to concede his Senate seat to Franken, who could be sworn in as soon as next week, when the Senate returns from a recess.
"The Supreme Court has spoken. We have a United States senator," Coleman said in a news conference outside his home in St. Paul. "It's time to move forward."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) signed the election certificate declaring Franken the winner yesterday evening.
The Democrats now have their largest majority in the Senate since 1978, but their ability to prevent filibusters as they attempt to push President Obama's agenda is likely to prove illusory. A pair of prominent Democrats, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), have missed a raft of votes this year because of illness and, although Byrd was released from a Washington area hospital yesterday, it is unclear how often either will be present in the chamber.
Efforts to maintain party unity are also hampered by the presence of a clutch of centrist Democrats, such as Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), who have said they oppose the public option in health-care reform legislation that would seek to create a government program to compete with private insurers. A number of Senate Democrats representing states that rely heavily on manufacturing jobs have also expressed concern about the climate-change bill, another Obama priority, that passed the House last week.
"The idea that you've got 60 reliable Democrats for votes for sweeping policy change simply doesn't work; it's not the reality of it," said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "The larger challenge for [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid or Barack Obama is managing expectations of people who are thinking: When you get 60 votes, you get do to whatever you want. And they most assuredly do not."
In a statement, the White House said Obama looks "forward to working with Senator-Elect Franken to build a new foundation for growth and prosperity by lowering health care costs and investing in the kind of clean energy jobs and industries that will help America lead in the 21st century."
Franken, joined by wife Franni at a news conference in front of their home in Minneapolis, said, "I can't wait to get started." But he played down the importance of his becoming the 60th Democrat in the chamber.
"Sixty is a magic number, but it isn't," Franken said, "because we know that we have senators who -- Republicans who are going to vote with the Democrats, with a majority of Democrats on certain votes, and Democrats that are going to vote with majority Republicans on others. So it's not quite a magic number as some people may say. But I hope we do get President Obama's agenda through."
Although he will be a backbencher in his caucus, he will be thrust almost immediately into one of the summer's highest-profile pieces of political theater, the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Democrats have been holding a seat on the Judiciary Committee for the Harvard-educated Franken, who will also serve on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a prime perch in the health-care debate.
The longtime Democratic activist is likely to be a reliable vote for the party on nearly every issue and has largely praised Obama's performance thus far. But beyond the Sotomayor hearings, Franken has indicated that he will attempt to keep a low profile in Washington. In an interview this year, he said he would seek to replicate the model of former senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who generally eschewed major speeches in her first few years on Capitol Hill to focus on learning the internal dynamics of the Senate and tried to avoid upstaging her colleagues.
"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."
Before his Senate bid, Franken had gained a reputation as a sharply partisan and acerbic Democrat who mocked Republicans but sometimes worried Democrats with his fiery commentaries on television and radio. After leaving "Saturday Night Live" in 1995, he wrote books, including "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot" and "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right," and hosted a show on the liberal Air America network.
But he largely downplayed his humor, temper and partisan background in his two-year campaign against Coleman, whom he repeatedly linked to President George W. Bush. Franken said little publicly during the post-election legal process, with an eye toward winning over the 57 percent of Minnesota voters who backed either Coleman or independent candidate Dean Barkley in the Nov. 4 vote.
A few days after the election, Coleman led the race by 206 votes out of almost 3 million cast, but a statewide recount that lasted until January found that after counting absentee ballots that had been improperly excluded, Franken was ahead by 225 votes.
Coleman filed a formal contest of the election in January, resulting in a two-month-long trial at which more absentee ballots were counted, and Franken emerged with a 312-vote lead. Coleman appealed the district court's decision in April.
Yesterday, Coleman acknowledged that Minnesotans were ready to move past the drama.
"The election of November, that was a long time ago; 2008 is over," he said.