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WASHINGTON - Minnesota Democrats in the U.S. House have rebuffed an unofficial Republican plan that would have redrawn the state's congressional boundaries in a way that could have helped GOP members of the congressional delegation, especially Rep. Michele Bachmann.
The rejection came just weeks before a five-judge panel is scheduled to impose its own plan on Feb. 21.
Both sides say that talks have continued for several days to reach a deal that might be palatable to all eight House members from Minnesota -- four Democrats and four Republicans.
The behind-the-scenes talks represent a last-ditch effort to keep congressional redistricting out of the courts, and come before congressional elections that could tilt the political balance in Washington, where Democrats are trying to regain the House majority they lost in 2010.
House members and others involved in or close to the negotiations said there have been long-standing efforts this year to independently reach an agreement on Minnesota's congressional boundaries, which have to be redrawn to conform to the 2010 census. Those talks were revved up this week after Bachmann, who ended her bid for the White House last month, announced that she would run for a fourth term in Congress.
The negotiations also came after Reps. Collin Peterson and Betty McCollum, both Democrats, complained to state DFL officials in November about a lack of input from Minnesota officeholders in Washington.
Half a dozen sources in both parties spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the discussions.
A new GOP proposal presented to House Democrats in recent days would have kept Bachmann from being moved into a district where she might either face McCollum or freshman Republican Chip Cravaack. Both scenarios remain distinct possibilities given Bachmann's fast-growing north-suburban district, which must surrender tens of thousands of residents to adjacent districts.
Bachmann won re-election in 2010 with 53 percent of the vote in a three-way race, but only after raising a record $13.5 million. She has always been a prodigious fundraiser, but coming out of the GOP presidential primaries, she is now carrying $447,000 in debt.
Bachmann's office had no comment on the negotiations.
While a Bachmann-McCollum race could be a gamble on both sides, Democrats in Washington ultimately decided to let the matter rest with judges who are expected to follow a general principle of minimal intervention in existing congressional boundaries.
One part of the new GOP proposal also would have taken much of the DFL-leaning Iron Range out of Cravaack's northern Minnesota district, an idea he has publicly dismissed. That's different from a plan pushed by Republicans in the Legislature last spring that would have put the state's entire northern tier in Peterson's district.
Political analysts say that Cravaack, who stunned DFL stalwart Jim Oberstar in 2010, is in for a dogfight no matter how the lines are redrawn. Two other Minnesota Republicans in the House, John Kline and Erik Paulsen, are not thought to face much political difficulty this year.
On the other side of the aisle, McCollum and Keith Ellison currently represent fairly safe Democratic districts and are said to be looking for as little change in the district lines as possible.
Peterson is a Democrat in a rural and Republican-leaning district. But he's a socially conservative champion of farmers' interests in Washington and appears ready to hold down his northwest Minnesota district however it's drawn.
Republicans have portrayed Rep. Tim Walz as too liberal for his southern Minnesota district, but the Mankato Democrat had little trouble getting elected to a third term in 2010 in what was otherwise a banner election year for Republicans.
Participants in the talks said the aim of their negotiations was to come to an agreement both sides could live with, in St. Paul as well as in Washington.
That proved to be too high a bar, especially since legislators in St. Paul, who would have to approve the plan, appear resigned to letting the courts determine both the state and congressional district lines. In addition, any plans that pass muster with all eight members of the Minnesota delegation also would have to meet the approval of Gov. Mark Dayton.
One Democratic negotiator said Republicans sought the assurance of Dayton's buy-in, which Democrats could not deliver. Without such an assurance, some Republicans also lost interest in a deal.
Even with a deal, sources in both parties said, both sides would have faced a problem of public perception, given the appearance of any deal-making to protect congressional seats.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.