WASHINGTON - The spirit of bipartisan change may be coming to the White House, but so far it has eluded the new Congress, where Minnesota's U.S. Senate recount has only widened the old partisan divide.
With a few days remaining before the inauguration of Barack Obama, Democrats are holding fast to their lockdown on Republican Norm Coleman, whose office has gone semi-dark -- barred from doing anything senatorial.
Republicans, meanwhile, have turned what they see as the mistreatment of Coleman into a fundraising pitch to defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2010.
In the last undecided Senate battle of the 2008 election, neither side shows signs of backing down. The Democrats' move underscores the fact that Coleman trailed DFLer Al Franken by 225 votes when the recount results were certified. On Wednesday, a three-judge panel in Minnesota will convene proceedings in Coleman's court challenge of that result. Before that, on Sunday, Franken will be in Washington -- for a recount-related fundraiser and then for the Obama inauguration.
The continuing struggle leaves Minnesota starting the Obama era with just one voice in the Senate. It also leaves hundreds of constituents Coleman was assisting -- such as John Kotalik, an 85-year-old retiree from Coon Rapids -- wondering who will represent their interests in Washington.
Kotalik sought Coleman's help with a claim against the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). But he found himself standing alone recently in front of Coleman's locked Senate office in St. Paul. "I still don't know what they're going to do," Kotalik said after happening upon a Coleman staffer picking up the mail.
Kotalik's beef is pretty straightforward: He blames airport TSA agents for damaging a shipment of golf clubs. But he remains perplexed that a U.S. Senate office would be shut down without prior notice. "You should be able to clear things up," he said.
Most of Coleman's unfinished business involves more serious matters: adoption problems, immigration matters, veterans benefits, Medicare issues. Coleman's staff was barred from the office for the past two weeks, a situation he called "surreal."
A Senate resolution passed Thursday gives him until Feb. 4 to close out his office and transfer constituent files like Kotalik's to other Minnesota representatives, including Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar. On Friday Coleman's staffers were in the process of packing up and the lobby was piled high with moving boxes.
View from the Senate
Senate Democrats say their actions regarding Coleman are not personal. "This is not anything we were looking for, but it's happened and we're going to deal with it as quickly as possible," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Majority Leader Reid.
But Senate GOP leaders take a more jaundiced view, saying Reid's hard line against Coleman threatens Obama's vision of a post-partisan 111th Congress.
In a letter soliciting donations to oust Reid in 2010, the National Republican Senatorial Committee accused the Nevada Democrat of punishing Coleman for challenging the state Canvassing Board's decision in favor of Franken.
Democrats say they are simply recognizing the results of the recount -- and the fact that Coleman's term expired on Jan. 3.
The standoff, Democrats insist, could be resolved quickly. "The best way for the people of Minnesota to have full representation as soon as possible would be for the Minnesota governor and secretary of state to send us a provisional or conditional certificate of election for Al Franken," Manley said.
Republicans agreed this week to a distribution of committee assignments that assumes a Franken victory -- which would give Senate Democrats 59 seats. But GOP Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona took to the Senate floor to warn Democrats against any parliamentary move to seat Franken immediately, a move that Republicans could filibuster indefinitely.
The bad blood comes at a critical time for Democrats. They need quick action on the economy, but they also might need Republican help to garner the filibuster-proof majority needed to move major legislation, from climate change and health care to Obama's economic stimulus package.
It's an old political dilemma, said Augsburg College political scientist John Shockley. "If you want it to be bipartisan," Shockley said, "it slows it way down."
As for bystanders such as Kotalik, he's become resigned to waiting or asking another senator to intervene for him. "I know government is very hard to fight," he said.
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753