WASHINGTON – The Minnesota Supreme Court Tuesday declared former comedian Al Franken the winner of the state’s U.S. Senate race, ending an eight-month election saga and giving Democrats a 60-seat majority that would theoretically allow them to block Republican filibusters.
In a unanimous ruling, the court rejected 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 press conference outside of his house in St. Paul. “It’s time to move forward.”
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 Kennedy of Massachusetts and Robert Byrd of West Virginia, have missed a raft of votes this year because of illness and, while Byrd was released from a Washington-area hospital Tuesday, 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, D-La., who have said they oppose the so-called 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 that passed the House last week, another Obama priority.
“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 Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “The larger challenge for (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid (D-Nev.) or Barack Obama is managing expectations of people who are thinking when you get 60 votes you get to do whatever you want and they most assuredly do not.”
Franken, joined by his wife, Franni, at a press conference in front of their home in Minneapolis, said “I can’t wait to get started.” But he played down the importance of the fact that he will become 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 as magic a number as some people may say. But I hope we do get President Obama’s agenda through.”
While he will be a back-bencher in his caucus, he will also be thrust almost immediately into one of the summer’s highest-profile pieces of political theater, the confirmation hearings of 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.
A longtime Democratic activist, Franken is likely to be a reliable vote for the party on nearly every issue and has largely praised Obama’s performance throughout the year. But beyond the Sotomayor hearings, he has indicated that he will attempt to keep a low profile in Washington. In an interview earlier this year he said he would seek to replicate the model of former Sen. Hillary 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.
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 both his humor, temper and partisan background in his two-year campaign against Coleman.
Coleman led that race by a mere 206 votes out of almost 3 million cast immediately after the Nov. 4 vote, 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 where more absentee ballots were counted, and Franken emerged with a 312-vote lead. Coleman appealed the decision by the district court in April.