Kind words for both sides can't mask the stakes for partisans

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ and ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: June 30, 2009 - 8:32 PM

Washington welcomes Sen.-elect Al Franken, but Republicans warn that with a supermajority, Democrats have "no excuses" left.

WASHINGTON - In the end, there were congratulations all around: To Norm Coleman, for a hard-fought race; to Al Franken, for winning.

But the blizzard of official statements emanating from a Congress in recess Tuesday mirrored the hard feelings built over eight months of partisan bickering, pitting party pitchmen and political operatives in a public relations war over what will now be the Democratic caucus' 60th Senate vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who forced Coleman's office to close in February, said he enjoyed his time working with the Minnesota Republican and wished him the best.

"I know a thing or two about close elections, and I appreciate both that Norm Coleman fought hard throughout his race and recount, and that he is now stepping aside and letting the people of Minnesota have the full representation they deserve," Reid said.

Texas Republican John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he wanted to be "among the first to welcome Al Franken" to the Senate. But he also put Democrats on notice that with a filibuster-proof, supermajority, "the era of excuses and finger-pointing is now over."

Months ago, Cornyn had threatened "World War III" if Democrats tried to seat Franken before Coleman exhausted his legal options.

There was none of that talk on Tuesday after Coleman made it plain that he was done.

Reid's spokesman, Minnesota native Jim Manley, said Coleman's decision to step aside opens the way for Franken to be sworn in "early next week." That likely means Tuesday or Wednesday, as Monday will be a travel day for most returning senators.

The site of Franken's offices when he gets to Washington has yet to be determined. Coleman's vacant Senate office remains dark, but some new senators use makeshift temporary quarters -- even trailers in a Senate office building courtyard -- until their regular offices are equipped and furnished.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who had kind words for Coleman and Franken, said the new junior senator from Minnesota will arrive prepared to jump into one of the most ambitious, jam-packed congressional sessions in years. "The one advantage of this six-month hiatus is he's had a lot of time to get his staff together and think about what he wants to do," Klobuchar said.

Franken will arrive with some coveted committee assignments in his pocket, despite his late arrival. He will be on committees for health care, education, labor and judiciary, which puts him in the center of the fight to confirm U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

The confirmation vote is just one of the reasons many national Republican figures had urged Coleman to take his recount challenge to the federal courts. Among them was Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

"While I would have proudly stood behind Norm Coleman had he chosen to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, I know that his decision to withdraw from this race was not an easy one," Steele said Tuesday.

Adding his disappointment was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who commended Coleman for "a great personal sacrifice to pursue an accurate account of the vote for Minnesotans."

Though Republicans were clearly unhappy with the outcome, their rhetoric was notably toned down from only days before, when some were still pushing Coleman to appeal to keep up the fight.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., told Minnesota Public Radio on Monday morning that he wanted Coleman to "carry this through the courts until we can get as much confidence here in Minnesota and in the nation that the results are accurate."

On Tuesday, Kline welcomed Franken to Congress, adding, however, that in the future "we must be mindful that Minnesotans deserve to be confident in the outcome of their elections and it is fundamental to our democracy that each and every vote is counted."

Democrats, too, proved more conciliatory after Coleman congratulated Franken, saying "it's time to look forward, and not back."

Hours earlier, after hearing of the Minnesota Supreme Court decision, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, issued a statement saying Minnesotans had been denied political representation for too long while Coleman "pursued his political ambitions."

In an interview after Coleman's concession, Klobuchar said she had thought "this was a possibility" and praised her former colleague for his "grace."

kdiaz@startribune.com • 202-408-2753 eric.roper@startribune.com • 202-408-2723

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