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GOP Defers to Coleman on Fate

Senate Republican leaders appear willing to go to the mat for former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), but it’s unclear whether Coleman wants to go to the mat for himself.

The Minnesota Supreme Court is expected to rule within weeks on whether Democrat Al Franken bested Coleman in the long-contested 2008 Senate race. Republicans said they were ready to protest any Democratic leadership attempts to seat Franken — if the court rules him the victor — until Coleman either exhausts his appeals process in the federal courts or decides to throw in the towel.

“I personally think it’d be a mistake to seat anybody while the appeals are pending,— National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said. “I believe we would support him in whatever efforts he made to have this finally decided by a court.—

Cornyn added that Coleman might have a better shot in federal court, given his argument that the state’s recount — which ultimately put Franken 312 votes ahead of Coleman — used inconsistent criteria for deciding which votes to count.

Still, Cornyn and Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said they would leave the decision on whether to push the issue into federal courts to Coleman and his lawyers.

“We have a lot of confidence in Norm’s judgment and the judgment of his legal team, and if they believed … that they have an argument that ought to be heard by the federal Supreme Court, my guess is, there’s going to be a lot of support for them trying to get it heard there,— Thune said.

One senior Senate Republican aide added that the GOP Conference supports Coleman because it believes he has taken a reasonable course of action given the closeness of the race and difficulties of the recount. If Franken were seated, Senate Democrats would attain a 60-seat, filibuster-proof margin.

“At no point has the Conference felt as though Sen. Coleman was simply delaying the inevitable or motivated by anything other than securing an accurate vote count,— the aide said. “So they will undoubtedly trust his judgment going forward.—

Republicans stopped short Wednesday of threatening an outright filibuster of any Democratic attempt to seat Franken. Thune noted that the issue has not been discussed in the Conference recently.

“I guess that’s a bridge we’ll cross when we come to it,— Thune said. “It’s not something that we’ve discussed. … There’ll be a lot of consideration and discussion if and when that happens.—

But it may not come to that. Sources close to Coleman say the former Senator would likely give up his legal battle and accept defeat if the Minnesota Supreme Court decides in Franken’s favor. That’s because Coleman anticipates that Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) would ultimately sign Franken’s certification papers.

If the court rules against Franken, it would not likely declare Coleman the winner but instead would either send the matter back to the lower courts or order another recount. There is also an outside chance that it could order another election.

Coleman is said to view his case as a matter of fairness based on Minnesota election law, which is expansive. The Republican is said to believe so strongly that he is in the right — and that the results so far have resulted in the disenfranchisement of millions of Minnesota voters — that he was willing to risk his political standing over the long term in order to see it through.

Still, sources say Coleman, who is vying for a second term, does not have the same appetite to pursue his case in federal court as he did for his state court battle.

“He will be done— if he loses at the state Supreme Court, one Republican predicted.

But Senate Democrats aren’t so sure that Pawlenty — who announced this week that he would not seek a third term as governor in 2010 — will follow through on his pledge to formally certify the winner in the race because he is widely believed to be positioning himself for a 2012 presidential run.

“As the [Minnesota] Supreme Court has made clear in previous cases, the governor is obligated under state law to sign the election certification,— said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “We hope that the governor follows through with that obligation and doesn’t let any possible presidential campaign ideas get in the way of what’s best for the people of Minnesota.—

At a news conference Tuesday, Pawlenty appeared to leave himself some wiggle room if the court stopped short of ordering him to sign the certification.

“I’m going to do whatever the court says. If the court directs me to sign that certificate, I will,— Pawlenty told reporters.

Indeed, presidential ambitions and the resultant imperative to shore up the GOP base could create an incentive for Pawlenty to drag his feet on certifying Franken the winner, considering the former comedian’s entry into the chamber would give Democrats a filibuster-proof majority. Sixty votes are needed to end debate on measures that are being blocked by individual Senators or groups.

Most Democrats declined to comment on what the majority might do if Republicans tried to block the seating of the 60th Democratic Senator. They put the onus on Pawlenty.

“We’re confident that the Minnesota Supreme Court will back up the two recounts, that Al Franken will be declared the winner, and we’re hoping the Supreme Court will direct the governor to send the appropriate credentials to Washington,— Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said. “There are other possibilities. I don’t want to speculate on what might happen.—

Democrats don’t appear to have a plan at this time for how to deal with a situation in which Franken is declared the winner but Pawlenty refuses to sign the certification.

Senate Democratic leaders made having the proper paperwork an issue when Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) was appointed by disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) to fill President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat. Burris did not present requisite papers signed by the governor and the Illinois secretary of state, and his appointment was under a cloud because Blagojevich was arrested and later impeached, in part, for allegedly trying to sell the seat for political favors and campaign cash.

But some Democrats said Republican attempts to stop Franken from taking the seat would be politically risky for the minority. They argued that Republicans, including Pawlenty, would be hard-pressed to make a case for delaying Franken’s admittance to the chamber if the Minnesota Supreme Court clearly rules in his favor. If the decision is unclear or the court is split, Republicans might have a better case to make, they acknowledged.

Republicans “need something from the court to hang their hat on,’ one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

David M. Drucker contributed to this report.

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