ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesota's extended Senate race played out on three fronts Friday: local officials readied unopened absentee ballots for counting this weekend, the state's highest court kept a legal door open for Sen. Norm Coleman and a top Republican in Washington hinted at a Capitol battle ahead.
It only added haziness to a contest now 60 days into overtime. One milestone that shows how long the race has lingered was to arrive Saturday, when Coleman's term expires.
Coleman trails Democratic challenger Al Franken by 49 votes with the pile of remaining absentee ballots — at least 900 — still to count.
Even if Franken maintains that lead when the new Congress convenes Tuesday, the incoming chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee served notice that he and other GOP senators would stand in the way of seating him until Coleman's legal options are exhausted.
"Anybody who would be inclined to jam this issue through the Senate and seat a senator who has not been determined to be the winner of the election would have to consider the damage to the Senate and its reputation as an institution," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn. "It would be a recipe for chaos."
Senate Democrats have not indicated what they would do if Franken is ahead after the recount ends, possibly on Tuesday. Minnesota's other senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, has said the man with the most votes should be seated while legal matters play out. Franken hasn't discussed his intentions.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, declined comment on what lies ahead. He would only say, "It's important that we wait for the Canvassing Board decision."
But the loser can appeal the recount result in court. While the state Canvassing Board declares who got the most votes, Minnesota law prevents the governor and secretary of state from issuing an election certificate until legal avenues are exhausted.
Cornyn's warning means it is probable that Minnesota will have only one senator for the time being. A court challenge could keep it that way for several months.
The lawsuit challenging the outcome must be filed within a week after the state board declares the count over. Once a lawsuit is filed, there is a 20-day window for a special three-judge panel to hear the case. There is no deadline for the judges to rule. Appeals would add weeks or months.
Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak said such a lawsuit is certain.
"An election challenge here is inevitable. Whether we bring it or the Franken campaign brings it, there is no doubt in my mind," he said.
While Coleman has trailed Franken in the recount for the last two weeks, his campaign held to the possibility of a come-from-behind victory.
Coleman's team got another lifeline when the Minnesota Supreme Court said it would give more consideration to an emergency petition seeking to add hundreds more absentee ballots to the mix. Coleman's team said it has identified 44 that should be included for sure and another 600 where a case could be made.
The court gave county, state and Franken campaign officials until Saturday morning to explain why that shouldn't happen. Justices said they would decide later whether to hold a hearing on Coleman's petition and rule on its merits.
On Friday, counties were finishing sorting envelopes containing previously rejected absentee ballots that could tip the race.
Election officials around the state have spent the week conferring with campaign representatives about 1,350 sealed ballots that didn't get counted Nov. 4 but which may have been excluded in error. Under a prior Supreme Court order, all sides had to agree that an absentee ballot was incorrectly rejected before it could be forwarded to the state for counting. The secretary of state's office planned to start counting them on Saturday morning.
Ballots without mutual agreement have been set aside. Voters can appeal to the high court if they feel their ballot was improperly struck by a campaign, but the compressed schedule made it unlikely they could have the decision overturned in time to include it in the recount.
Ritchie said the board has no immediate plans to extend its work to accommodate voter appeals. He said he expects at least 900 of a possible 1,350 ballots to receive the joint endorsement of the campaigns and local election officials as required by the court's order last month. Voters whose ballots were struck will have to wait until a post-election lawsuit to get them reconsidered, Ritchie said.
"Unless the Supreme Court changes its mind," he said.
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty said during his weekly radio show that the process may be flawed because the campaigns have so much power to keep ballots out.
"It seems odd that you would turn over somebody's legal right to vote to the campaigns," he said.