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Brian Bakst, Published January 02 2009

Senate GOP to block attempt to seat Franken early

ST. PAUL – A top Senate Republican said Friday his caucus would block any attempt to seat Democrat Al Franken until an anticipated court case over Minnesota’s close election is finished and an official election certificate is conferred.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the incoming chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told reporters that Republicans would object to seating the race leader Franken sooner. A filibuster would require 60 votes to break – a few more than Democrats currently hold in Washington.

Senate Democrats have not indicated what they would do if Franken’s lead over Republican Sen. Norm Coleman holds up after the recount ends. Minnesota’s other senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, has said the man with the most votes after the recount concludes should be seated while legal matters play out. Franken hasn’t discussed his intentions.

The former “Saturday Night Live” cast member and radio show host unofficially leads the GOP incumbent by 49 votes with hundreds of uncounted absentee ballots due to be opened on Saturday.

The loser can appeal the recount result in court. While the Canvassing Board declares who got the most votes, Minnesota law prevents the governor and secretary of state from issuing an election certificate until after legal avenues are exhausted.

“I can assure you that there will be no way people on our side of the aisle will agree to seat any senator provisionally or otherwise unless there is a valid election certificate and all legal issues about who got the most votes is finally decided,” Cornyn said.

Cornyn’s warning means it is probable that Minnesota will have only one senator when the new Congress convenes on Tuesday. A court challenge and possible appeals could keep it that way for several months.

The lawsuit challenging the outcome must be filed within a week after a state board declares the count over. The Canvassing Board – made up of four senior judges and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie – had hoped to wrap up its work by Tuesday.

There is a 20-day window after they sign off on the final vote count for a special three-judge panel to hear the case, but there are no deadlines for the judges to rule. Appeals could add weeks or months to the timeline.

Coleman’s term expires at 11 a.m. Central time on Saturday.

Meanwhile on Friday, counties were finishing sorting envelopes containing previously rejected absentee ballots that could still tip the race.

Election officials around the state have spent the week conferring with campaign representatives about 1,350 sealed ballots that didn’t get counted Nov. 4 but may have been excluded in error. Under a Supreme Court court order, all sides had to agree that an absentee ballot was incorrectly rejected before it could be forwarded to the state for counting.

Ballots without mutual agreement were set aside. Voters can appeal to the high court if they feel their ballot was improperly struck by a campaign, but the compressed schedule made it unlikely they could have the decision overturned in time to include it in the recount.

Ritchie said the board has no plans to push out its deadline to accommodate voter appeals. He said he expects at least 900 of a possible 1,350 ballots to receive the endorsement of the campaigns and local election officials as required by the court’s order last month.

“Unless the Supreme Court changes its mind, then the ones that will be included will be the ones that were agreed to by all three sides,” he said.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty said during his weekly radio show that the court-driven process may be flawed because the campaigns have so much power to keep ballots out.

“It seems odd that you would turn over somebody’s legal right to vote to the campaigns,” he said.

Coleman’s campaign was awaiting another Supreme Court ruling that could let hundreds more ballots into the process. A court action was expected later Friday.

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