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Continued: How long will Minnesota be a senator short?

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA and PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Last update: December 28, 2008 - 4:03 PM

What's life like for a state with only one U.S. senator in Washington? Minnesotans may soon find out.

With no clear end in sight to the recount battle between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and DFLer Al Franken, and a new Congress convening in just nine days, it is looking likely that only Sen. Amy Klobuchar will be representing the state in the Senate for at least part of January.

Already, the task of keeping up with the routine demands from Minnesotans -- from requests for veterans benefits to help with home heating issues -- is becoming a problem. The state also could be one senator short when Congress and incoming President Barack Obama embark on an ambitious national agenda in January.

Klobuchar said her office has seen a doubling of requests in the past month for basic constituent services, including calls from people who say they are reluctant to contact Coleman's office because of the uncertainty of the election outcome. Should the vacancy continue, she added, she may ask for a temporary increase in staff.

"If there were a short delay, we could weather that," said Klobuchar, a Democrat. "[But] we've already seen an uptick" in constituent requests for help.

Regardless of whether the state Canvassing Board finishes its work by Jan. 6, the first day of the 111th Congress, observers said the seat will almost certainly remain vacant for a time.

Although state law gives the governor power to fill a Senate vacancy, most think Gov. Tim Pawlenty would likely have no role, or inclination, to plug the gap. The Senate must first declare the seat vacant, some experts say, and it is unlikely to do so amid an ongoing election dispute.

The governor's office last week said Pawlenty had the authority to appoint a senator only in the case of a permanent vacancy and did not view a temporary gap caused by the recount as applicable.

Court action ahead?

As Franken holds a small unofficial lead, and as the Coleman campaign has endured several administrative and legal setbacks, the likelihood has increased that the recount will spill over into a full-blown "election contest," a post-recount court challenge.

When the Canvassing Board certifies the vote totals and identifies a winner, either candidate will have seven days to challenge the board's conclusion.

How soon the board gets to that point can't yet be determined. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, chairman of the five-member panel, said it could finish its work by Jan. 6, but he has emphasized that the board's actions are not being driven by events in Washington.

Nor are there any road maps to how long it might take to seat a winner. After a U.S. Senate election 34 years ago in New Hampshire, the winner was not determined until 10 months later -- and only after a second election was held. In Minnesota's famous 1962 gubernatorial race, Gov. Elmer L. Andersen held a small lead in the initial results but lost the recount by 91 votes and resigned from office four months after the November election.

Vacancy impact

Klobuchar said that having only one senator for a matter of weeks would not be a major inconvenience. The problem would become more acute after three weeks or more, she said, or should an issue particular to Minnesota need action, such as the 2008 effort to secure federal money for security for this year's Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

Others, however, say that having two senators in place from the start would be important to Minnesota.

"I think it matters more in January '09 more than it would in [another] year because the Democratic Congress is planning on getting more active." said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. "There will be all sorts of major initiatives.

"It's an unusually consequential [moment] for Minnesota."

Regarding the length of a vacancy, Klobuchar said she believes there is still "a good possibility" that the Canvassing Board will finish up by Jan. 6 and even a better chance that Minnesota will have a new senator a week or so later.

"If the Canvassing Board declares a winner, that should be our senator," she said, even if a court challenge were to follow. "[The Senate] could seat a senator pending the litigation."

Her view of a possible provisional winner is shared by Fred Morrison, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Minnesota. Morrison said the Senate could tentatively seat Franken, for example, if he comes out of the Canvassing Board process with a lead that would require Coleman to prevail in court on nearly all of his disputed claims to win.

"The Senate could say ... we will seat Franken pending the final result," he said.

Short-term fix?

On another question, Morrison said Pawlenty probably couldn't fill a vacancy because the Senate decides whether to call the seat vacant and it wouldn't do so while the election dispute is going on.

Not everyone agrees. David Schultz, who teaches election law at Hamline, said the 17th Amendment to the Constitution as well as state law holds that the governor can appoint an interim senator or decide that Minnesota will go without one until the recount is resolved.

Brian Sullivan, a leading Republican activist, says he thinks Pawlenty is likely blocked by law from making an appointment. He also said that moving quickly to make an appointment would be seen as an "overtly political" act. "I think that's why Pawlenty hasn't been aggressive," he said.

Sullivan said he believes that the vacancy will be resolved, one way or the other, in January or perhaps February, and that having the seat vacant probably would not hurt Minnesotans in the short term.

If Pawlenty were to make an appointment while the legal wrangling continued, Coleman would be a logical choice because doing so would offer continuity and preserve the advantages of Congressional seniority that Coleman has. "[But] I think it's not a hypothetical -- it's a fantasy," said Sullivan. "The law is not open" to Pawlenty acting, he said, and his action "would [be] seen as partisan, regardless of what his true motives were."

mkaszuba@startribune.com • 651-222-1673 pdoyle@startribune.com • 651-222-1210

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