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Norm Coleman concedes Minnesota Senate race to Al Franken

After a fierce eight-month voter recount battle in Minnesota, Al Franken’s U.S. Senate victory Tuesday hands Democrats a powerful, filibuster-proof majority as they embark on the administration’s ambitious initiatives for energy and healthcare reform.

The victory followed the Minnesota Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling Tuesday declaring Franken the victor over Republican incumbent Norm Coleman by a razor-thin 312 votes out of 2.9 million cast in November’s election.

Franken, 58, formerly of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and later of liberal talk radio station Air America, said he was humbled “not just by the closeness of this election, but by the responsibility that comes with this position.”

“I can’t wait to get started,” he said at a news conference.

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His comic roots haunted him occasionally during the campaign. Rivals in the Democratic primary objected to a satirical piece he wrote for Playboy in 2000, in which he described sex acts at a fictional virtual-reality sex lab in Minnesota.

And Republicans cried foul when they learned that Franken had helped conceive an SNL sketch mocking Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the GOP presidential candidate -- and now one of Franken’s colleagues.

During the campaign, Franken usually played it straight.

The win carries symbolic weight for the Democrats, undeniably branding them the party of power in the White House, House and now the Senate, where Democrats will hold a 60-vote supermajority -- counting two independents who caucus with them.

But the practical effect of the 60-vote milestone may be less profound.

It has been more than 30 years since Democrats have held a similar supermajority in the Senate -- from 1977 to 1979 during the Carter administration. As President Carter discovered, senators, by tradition, are notoriously independent and regionally minded, voting out of interests that extend beyond party loyalty.

Franken himself said he had no plans to be a Democratic automaton.

“The way I see it, I’m not going to Washington to be the 60th Democratic senator. I’m going to Washington to be the second senator from the state of Minnesota, and that’s how I’m going to do this job,” he said.

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The success -- or failure -- of Congress to pass effective legislation is almost solely the Democrats’ responsibility now -- a fact that Republicans were eager to note Tuesday.

“With their supermajority, the era of excuses and finger-pointing is now over,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, indicating that Democrats can’t blame intransigent Republicans anymore for the failure to make legislative progress.

Coleman’s defeat was a disappointment for Republicans, although Coleman himself said he was at peace with the outcome.

“The election of November 2008 is over,” said Coleman, 59, as he stood outside his Minnesota home. “It’s time to look forward and not look back.”

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Coleman, who has been in the Senate since 2003, said he called Franken to congratulate him on his victory: “I told him that it’ll be the best job he’ll ever have.”

The fight to get to Washington had been a long and emotional battle that at times bordered on the ridiculous. On the morning after the election in November, unofficial results showed Coleman ahead by 725 votes.

Coleman declared victory Nov. 5, but Franken pushed ahead with a demand for a recount.

As the days passed, the tally changed and Coleman’s lead ultimately dwindled. Both sides flooded the courts and the secretary of state’s office with legal challenges.

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State election officials hand-counted millions of ballots, and the campaigns fought over the penmanship of voters who apparently weren’t content to color inside the ballot’s oval lines. Coleman’s lead evaporated, and in December Franken pulled ahead.

In April, a lower court ruled that Franken had the most votes. Coleman appealed to the state Supreme Court. The two men have spent at least $11 million on the legal fight.

On Tuesday, the court rejected Coleman’s contention that thousands of absentee ballots were illegally excluded. Coleman conceded two hours later.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, certified the election within hours of the decision.

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Since the Senate is in recess until after Independence Day, the earliest Franken could be seated is next week.

“There is far too much work to be done for the state and the nation to drag this process on any longer,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said in a statement Tuesday.

President Obama said in a statement: “I look forward to working with Sen.-elect Franken to build a new foundation for growth and prosperity by lowering healthcare costs and investing in the kind of clean-energy jobs and industries that will help America lead in the 21st century.”

Franken’s arrival in the Senate comes at a crucial time, with several big-ticket legislative initiatives poised to be debated in the Senate in the coming months.

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In July, the Senate will work toward fashioning a final version of a healthcare overhaul bill, to be voted on later in the year. It will also take up a version of the massive energy and climate-change bill passed by the House last week. In both cases, Franken’s vote could be instrumental.

Healthcare reform promises to be divisive, and the energy bill has already proved to be so. It passed the House on Friday by just seven votes, with 44 Democrats voting against it. Several Democrats in the Senate may follow suit, voting to protect agricultural or energy interests in their states.

Franken’s presence also will provide more breathing room for the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Republicans have been careful to avoid threatening to filibuster the nomination, but that option could disappear for good, draining much of the drama out of the fight. Her confirmation hearings begin July 13, with a final floor vote likely during the first week of August.

Though Franken’s presence ostensibly means Democrats will have to spend less time wooing Republicans, in practice that isn’t likely to be the case.

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The contentious bills on energy, healthcare and, perhaps down the road, immigration will require some Republican support.

Indeed, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, may spend as much time attempting to keep conservative Democrats on board with the caucus -- and he won’t be afraid to attempt to replace a vote with a moderate Republican if he must.

Factor into the equation as well the poor health of Senate lions Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. The Senate majority whip, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, said last week that Democrats, in truth, could only count on 58 votes right now because of the men’s conditions.

The Democratic caucus also includes independent Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who defected to the Democratic Party from the GOP earlier this year. Over the years, Specter has at times charted his own course and frustrated both parties.

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That means that in certain circumstances, the Republicans could still be able to mount a filibuster.

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

joliphant@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Al Franken

Age: 58

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Hometown: Born in New York City; raised in St. Louis Park, Minn.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University.

Experience: Writer and performer on “Saturday Night Live,” 1975-1980 and 1985-1995. Author of several books, including “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations” (1996) and “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right” (2003). Host of “The Al Franken Show” on Air America Radio, 2004-2007.

Family: Wife Franni. Two adult children, daughter Thomasin and son Joe.

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Source: Associated Press

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Key dates in the Senate recount

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Nov. 4, 2008: Initial vote tallies on election day show Republican Norm Coleman leading Democrat Al Franken by 215 votes, but the race is too close to call.

Nov. 18: A statewide canvassing report says Coleman has a 215-vote lead, triggering an automatic hand recount because the margin is less than one-half of 1 percentage point.

Jan. 5, 2009: The recount concludes and the state canvassing board certifies Franken as the winner by 225 votes.

Jan. 6: Coleman files a lawsuit in Ramsey County District Court challenging the results.

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Jan. 26: A trial begins before a three-judge panel.

April 13: The panel rules in Franken’s favor and says he is entitled to receive a certificate of election.

April 20: Coleman files an appeal with the Minnesota Supreme Court.

June 1: The state Supreme Court hears oral arguments.

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June 30: The court rules for Franken.

Source: Times research


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