WASHINGTON - A smiling Al Franken hosted an "inaugural brunch" fundraiser at the Willard Hotel on Sunday, a $1,000-a-plate event on his first trip to the capital since he was certified as the leader in the U.S. Senate race with Norm Coleman.
Franken, accompanied by his wife, Franni, also met with wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for two hours Saturday, his second USO visit to the hospital.
The Minnesota DFLer and former "Saturday Night Live" star has been using the trip to meet with major donors and top party officials, including outgoing Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean. The trip comes as his 225-vote lead over Coleman is being challenged in court.
Franken campaign officials gave no estimate of the take from the 350-person fundraiser, where top donors were asked to contribute $12,300 for a joint recount fund with the Minnesota DFL Party.
"It costs a lot of money," Franken said of the recount battle, which is expected to run into the millions of dollars. "I'm not sure of the specific amount."
Reporters were barred from the event, which featured Grateful Dead legend Bob Weir on guitar.
Other show-business figures were also on the scene, including producer Charlie Fink, a frequent Democratic donor who worked with Franken on his 1986 comedy film "One More Saturday Night."
"Coleman is not going to go away quietly, so Franken has to defend his victory now," said Fink, sporting a blue Franken T-shirt.
Many of Franken's guests were prominent DFLers in Washington for Tuesday's inaugural celebration, as is Franken. "It's so wonderful to add another person to the Barack Obama team," said Minneapolis attorney Sam Kaplan, a member of Obama's national finance committee.
"What everybody wants, frankly, is to get this [the recount lawsuit] over with," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. "But people want to get it over fairly and make sure every vote counts."
Franken was introduced by Democrat Amy Klobuchar, effectively Minnesota's only U.S. senator since Coleman's term expired Jan. 3.
"It's very important that we get this resolved," Klobuchar said as she entered the reception in the hotel's Peacock Room. "That's my focus, filling in the gap to make sure people are getting the services they need."
Klobuchar and other Democrats have been calling for Franken to be provisionally seated in the Senate while Coleman's court challenge is resolved. But Democratic leaders in the Senate have been reluctant to seat Franken without a state election certificate, which Franken is now trying to win in court.
Franken met with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid during a visit to the U.S. Capitol in November. But in an interview Sunday, Franken said he has not asked Senate Democrats to seat him without a state election certificate, which would have to be signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican.
"I don't have those kinds of conversations," Franken said. He added, however, "It would be good for Minnesota to have two senators. We'll see how the certificate process goes. But this is really for the Senate and the courts in Minnesota [to decide]."
Besides Klobuchar, two other Democratic senators appeared at Franken's fundraiser: Maria Cantwell of Washington and Jon Tester of Montana, whose former chief of staff, Stephanie Schriock, ran Franken's campaign. Also present was Vermont's Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
"We're going to do everything we can to make sure that Franken is elected," Sanders said.
For now, though, that appears limited to raising money for Franken's increasingly bitter court battle with Coleman.
"If Al Franken's out-of-state friends think they are spending their money on anything other than an artificial lead, we've got some nice swamp land to sell them," said Coleman spokesman Luke Friedrich. "This money will be used to try to short-circuit Minnesota election law. Nothing more, nothing less."
Franken, while claiming victory, acknowledged the public's weariness with the ongoing election dispute. But he added, "I'm really proud of the way we've conducted ourselves during the recount."
Franken also sought to soften the focus of his trip with the outing to Walter Reed, where he crossed paths with a group of Rangerette cheerleaders from Kilgore College in Texas. As for the wounded soldiers, he said, "You leave in much better spirits than when you came in. I mean, they cheer you up. It's amazing. Our troops are absolutely amazing."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753