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Brian Bakst, Published January 03 2009

Another battle likely in Minnesota Senate recount war

ST. PAUL – Minnesota’s extended Senate race played out on three fronts Friday: Local officials readied unopened absentee ballots for counting this weekend, the state’s highest court kept a legal door open for Sen. Norm Coleman, and a top Republican in Washington hinted at a Capitol battle ahead.

It only added haziness to a contest now 60 days into overtime. One milestone that shows how long the race has lingered was to arrive today, when Coleman’s term expires.

Coleman trails Democratic challenger Al Franken by 49 votes with the pile of remaining absentee ballots – 953 – still to count.

Even if Franken maintains that lead when the new Congress convenes Tuesday, the incoming chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee served notice that he and other GOP senators would stand in the way of seating him until Coleman’s legal options are exhausted.

“Anybody who would be inclined to jam this issue through the Senate and seat a senator who has not been determined to be the winner of the election would have to consider the damage to the Senate and its reputation as an institution,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn. “It would be a recipe for chaos.”

Senate Democrats have not indicated what they would do if Franken is ahead after the recount ends, possibly Tuesday. Minnesota’s other senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, has said the man with the most votes should be seated while legal matters play out. Franken hasn’t discussed his intentions.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, declined comment on what lies ahead. He would only say, “It’s important that we wait for the Canvassing Board decision.”

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

Cornyn’s warning means it is probable that Minnesota will have only one senator for the time being. A court challenge could keep it that way for several months.

The lawsuit challenging the outcome must be filed within a week after the state board declares the count over. Once a lawsuit is filed, there is a 20-day window for a special three-judge panel to hear the case. There is no deadline for the judges to rule. Appeals would add weeks or months.

Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak said such a lawsuit is certain.

“An election challenge here is inevitable. Whether we bring it or the Franken campaign brings it, there is no doubt in my mind,” he said.