WASHINGTON - The chances of seating a new Minnesota senator any time soon faded drastically Wednesday as Democratic leaders announced that they will not recognize a new senator without a state election certificate.
Laying down the marker in the case of Illinois appointee Roland Burris, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he is open to seating the embattled Democrat, but only if he wins an election certificate in a case he has brought before the Illinois Supreme Court.
The Illinois controversy, which has overshadowed the start of the 111th Congress, has a direct bearing on the recount between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman, because Minnesota law bars state officials from issuing an election certificate until all legal challenges are settled.
Coleman, who received 225 fewer votes than Franken in the two-month-old recount, has filed a suit that legal experts say could take a minimum of several months to resolve.
The Democrats' surprise turnaround on Burris, who was appointed by scandal-plagued Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, dealt a severe blow to those who had hoped to seat Franken provisionally, pending the outcome of the legal battle in Minnesota.
In announcing a new agreement with Burris, Reid said an election certificate is a "vital" requirement of the Senate that has never been waived in modern history. But scrambling to control the damage from the Burris episode, Senate leaders also cast some confusion on where they stand on the Minnesota recount.
Asked by the Star Tribune whether the same standard would be applied to Franken, as well, Reid initially equivocated, saying "the states of Illinois and the states of Minnesota are two different animals."
But Reid's second-in-command, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois, was more emphatic. Asked if Franken would need an election certificate to be seated in the Senate, Durbin said: "Of course, he has to have a governor and secretary of state certify his credentials."
Earlier, discussing the Burris deal, Durbin said, "This has been a rule in the United States Senate since 1884. ... We have never, ever waived the rule for any election or appointment. ... So it's an important rule, and one not easily challenged or waived."
A Franken spokesman said the campaign had no comment. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, would have to sign any election certificate from Minnesota. He has said he will abide by state law, which requires that the election dispute be settled in court first.
'Still assessing the situation'
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, told reporters after the state Canvassing Board certified the recount results that there would likely be an attempt to seat Franken this week. But on Wednesday he backed off that assertion, saying Democratic leaders are "still assessing the situation ... waiting to see if Mr. Coleman does the right thing and puts an end to the challenges."
That has put Coleman and his Republican allies in the driver's seat, at least until his legal challenge works its way through the Minnesota courts -- with a federal court review a possibility, as well.
Republicans, who have sufficient numbers in the Senate to delay action indefinitely with a filibuster, have vowed to block any move to seat Franken before Coleman's legal remedies are exhausted. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has said it would be "unprecedented" to seat a senator without an election certificate.
2 states, same Senate rules
Brian Walsh, a spokesman for Cornyn, seized on Reid's most recent remarks, saying, "Illinois and Minnesota might be two different states, but the rules of the Senate should be the same."
Reid and the Democrats have been trying to block Burris from assuming the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, arguing that the appointment process was tainted by the corruption charges against Blagojevich. But they have found little legal basis for blocking the appointment, outside of the unwillingness of Illinois' secretary of state to sign the election certificate.
Burris has asked the Illinois Supreme Court to intervene, and on Wednesday Reid and Durbin said they would take a new look at the Burris case if he is granted an election certificate. A move to seat Burris, like Franken, would still require a vote of the Senate.
Meanwhile, Republicans have delighted in the internecine Democratic scrum. "Senator Reid painted himself in a corner by digging in against Mr. Burris," Walsh said. "But now he's backed himself into another corner that makes it clear Mr. Franken should not be seated."
Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, currently the state's sole U.S. senator, has been a leading proponent of allowing the person with the most votes to be seated provisionally pending court challenges.
But she, too, has come to recognize that an out-of-court settlement is not likely. "It is clear there is no agreement for this idea," said her spokesman, Linden Zakula. "So now her hope is that it gets resolved [in court] as soon as possible."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753