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Minnesota's U.S. Senate battle played out on two fronts Wednesday, as Norm Coleman and Al Franken met separately with national party leaders in Washington while their lawyers squared off in a St. Paul courtroom.
"Reports of my defeat are greatly exaggerated," Coleman said in an interview after a luncheon meeting with Republican senators. "Franken's lead is artificial. Any attempt to shut off this process is not going to succeed."
Franken, in a joint appearance with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suggested that the race is all but over. "President Obama said [Tuesday] that we've got to work and address the problems that we have, so that's what we're doing here today."
With Franken's 225-vote lead after a lengthy recount certified by Minnesota's Canvassing Board, Reid said, "The race in Minnesota is over with. ... There's no way the elections results are going to change."
Earlier in the day, Reid said the Senate will "probably" try to seat Franken, but didn't say when. In their closed-door meeting, the two reportedly discussed Franken's role in the upcoming Senate agenda, including possible committee assignments. "That's still a work in progress," Reid said.
For his part, Coleman said enough irregularities have been found to reverse the outcome. "There's no question the votes are there to overcome a very slim lead," he said. Seating Franken before he obtained an election certificate in Minnesota would be "way out of line," Coleman said.
Meanwhile, in St. Paul, lawyers for Franken accused Coleman of launching a "fishing expedition" in his challenge of the recount. They urged the three-judge panel to dismiss the lawsuit seeking a wide-ranging court fight over the outcome.
"Ballots are filled out by human beings," said David Burman, a lawyer for Franken. "Elections are run by human beings. ... At some point, Minnesota has to say, 'We've done the best job that human beings can reasonably do.'"
But Coleman's attorneys argued that he is entitled to a trial, saying the state Supreme Court and state law invited him to bring evidence of his arguments that he was disadvantaged by ballots that were improperly rejected or counted.
"Those are the sorts of things that the Minnesota Supreme Court said were fodder for this court," said attorney Jim Langdon.
If the judges refuse to dismiss the suit, the Franken lawyers said, they could limit Coleman to a review of some of the specific claims he was unable to pursue before the Canvassing Board. Those include his argument that 654 absentee ballots from mostly Republican areas were wrongly rejected, that votes may have been counted twice in 22 mostly Democratic precincts and that some missing ballots artificially inflated Franken's total.
The panel, made up of District Court Judges Elizabeth Hayden, Kurt Marben and Denise Reilly, took the matter under consideration and did not indicate when it might rule. Trial is scheduled to begin Monday on the lawsuit.
Burman said that Coleman's bid for a possibly wide-ranging inquiry isn't allowed in state court and could only be heard by the U.S. Senate.
But Langdon told the judges they had authority under state law to delve into the claims. "Now is the time," he said. "Here is the place, this court, for this long election process to be concluded."
During the recount, the Minnesota Supreme Court said some of Coleman's claims could be taken up later in an election contest. Burman suggested the court was referring to a contest before the Senate rather than in a state court, but Langdon said it was clear that "those are the sorts of things the Minnesota Supreme Court said, file with this court."
Coleman spokesman Ben Ginsberg accused the Franken campaign of "basically trying to do an end-run around Minnesota law to put it squarely in the United States Senate where there are 58 Democratic senators right now."
That theme played out Wednesday in Washington.
Luke Friedrich, a Coleman spokesman, accused Franken of trying to "short-circuit" the process and portray himself as the winner, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., called for patience in the legal battle. "It remains the view of every single member of my conference that the Minnesota Senate race will indeed be decided in Minnesota, and not in Washington," he said.
While Democrats on Capitol Hill have vowed to seat Franken, Reid has been reluctant to press the issue in the Senate, where Republicans have enough votes to block such a move. Asked if he would wait until all the legal challenges are resolved, Reid said, "We'll have to wait and see. We're going to see if Coleman's people are just being dilatory or have some meritorious issues."
Franken, who was in Washington for the inauguration, said in an interview Sunday that he is eager to get to work. "I hope to get to the Senate as soon as I can because there's so much important stuff that has to be done," he said. "There's going to be a huge stimulus package voted on soon, and Amy [Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.] is both the junior and senior senator right now. It would be nice to have two of us fighting for Minnesota."
Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report.
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