WASHINGTON - No matter who wins the recount, Minnesota's next U.S. senator will be a man on the margins.
Emerging from the last undecided race of the 2008 elections, incumbent Republican Norm Coleman -- if he is reelected -- would be the GOP's 42nd vote in the Senate, helping give his party the slimmest of reeds to resist the agenda of Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress. Should DFL challenger Al Franken prevail, he would be the 59th senator in the Democratic caucus, bringing his party within one vote of the power to override any filibuster.
The new political calculus preached by Obama, however, could render the old partisan math moot. As they prepare for next year's agenda, Democrats are confident they can muster the filibuster-proof majority on some of Obama's top priorities, from the economy and health care to energy legislation.
"You can already see that people are just waiting to get something done, so there are possibilities," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "Eventually, we're going to get broad support."
Though they have fallen at least one vote short of the 60 needed to overcome parliamentary roadblocks in the Senate, Democrats say that on some issues they can count on the support of a half-dozen GOP moderates who occasionally break party ranks.
One of them could be Coleman, a Republican who supports a form of universal health insurance, who voted with Democrats to expand the children's health insurance program and who favors negotiated drug prices under Medicare.
Energy legislation is another example where either a Sen. Franken or a Sen. Coleman could be a decisive swing vote for the Democrats. Coleman, like virtually every other politically vulnerable Senate Republican this year, became part of the "Gang of 20," a bipartisan group encouraging state-by-state decisions on offshore oil drilling, along with billions of dollars in new spending on alternative energy -- paid for in part by rolling back certain oil subsidies and tax loopholes.
Coleman professes no plans to roll over for the Democrats, particularly on an economic stimulus plan that could cost upwards of $500 billion, which will be Obama's first big test.
"If it's just a Christmas tree, I'm going to have a problem with it," Coleman said Friday.
But Coleman trades on pragmatism, and bipartisanship is in the air.
"He does respond to the prevailing breeze," said Joe Kunkel, a Minnesota State University Mankato political analyst. "And that's the way things are blowing right now."
Minding the middle
For their part, Senate Democrats are counting on welcoming to their ranks a solidly Democratic Franken or a much more conciliatory Coleman compromised by a squeaker election in a state that went decisively for Obama.
Political analysts note that Coleman, who first ran for the Senate as a close ally of President Bush, moved closer to the political center in the last trimester of his term, as Bush's popularity sank and Republicans lost control of the Senate.
"Which Coleman will emerge if he does get back?" said American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein. "I don't think there's an answer at this point."
Franken, too, could play the middle on some issues -- as could any senator who wants to make a deal. But his strong attacks on Republicans over the years hardly suggests a role anything like Coleman's. Said Ornstein: "His voting record will not be as much of a mystery."
Coleman, if reelected, does not see his position in the Senate weakened. "The issue is not weak or contrite," he said, noting that President Lyndon Johnson won his Senate seat in 1948 by 87 votes. "It didn't slow him up."
Nor does Coleman see himself as part of a GOP "firewall" to contain Democratic initiatives. That role was claimed by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who won Tuesday's runoff in Georgia, giving the Republicans Vote No. 41, the magic number to sustain a filibuster.
But in reality, there is no magic number, because many Senate votes -- farm bills are a leading example -- break down not by party but by region. Moreover, while Democratic leaders in the Senate can sometimes win over GOP moderates such as Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, they also have to keep an eye on their right flank, represented by Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania.
Compromise a must
In the end, falling short of 60 may give Democrats the breathing room of diminished expectations. "They're better off at 59," Ornstein said.
The upshot is a Senate that will have to compromise, and a new president who says he wants to.
"We're in a time now where the discussion is this air of postpartisan politics," Coleman said. "I'm comfortable with that."
If reelected, Coleman would become the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, putting him in close proximity with Obama's new secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton. The thought puts Coleman in a bipartisan frame of mind: "I look forward to working with Hillary Clinton," he said.
If the Obama administration can fashion some kind of a deal to jump-start the economy -- its first order of business -- it would likely have to include almost all Senate Democrats and a fair number of Republicans in the middle. Such a scenario could very well include either a Franken or a Coleman.
The energy debate could also provide one of the new year's first legislative breakthroughs. The Gang of 20 promises to break the environmental impasse on offshore drilling. The group includes Klobuchar, who could be a bridge to Franken. Coleman has gone along by emphasizing that it contemplates more oil and gas exploration as well as a renewed focus on nuclear energy.
Coleman also signed on to a growing bipartisan effort led by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to provide universal health care through a pool of private insurance plans funded by employers and consumers. Whether a Sen. Franken might help put such a private-sector solution over the top remains unclear. He ran as an advocate of a government-funded, "single payer," system.
"He's said that working with Democrats and Republicans to get to universal health care and solve our energy crisis will be top priorities if he's elected," said Franken spokesman Andy Barr.
But whoever emerges from the Minnesota recount will step into a special moment in history. Said Kunkel: "The new president is going to want Republican fingerprints on some of the things that are going to happen."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753