WASHINGTON — The Minnesota Supreme Court Tuesday declared former comedian Al Franken the winner of the state's U.S. Senate race, ending an eight-month election saga and giving Democrats a 60-seat majority that would allow them to block Republican filibusters.
In a unanimous ruling, the court rejected Norm Coleman's legal arguments that some absentee ballots had been improperly counted and that some localities had used inconsistent standards in counting votes. The ruling led Coleman to concede his Senate seat to Franken, who could be sworn in as soon as next week when the Senate returns from a recess.
Franken, joined by his wife, Franni, at a press conference in front of their home in Minneapolis, said "I can't wait to get started."
The Democrats now have their largest majority in the Senate since 1978, but their ability to prevent filibusters as they attempt to push President Obama's agenda is likely to prove illusory. A pair of prominent Democrats, Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Robert Byrd of West Virginia, have missed a raft of votes this year because of illness and, while Byrd was released from a Washington-area hospital Tuesday, it is unclear how often either will be present in the chamber.
Efforts to maintain party unity are also hampered by the presence of a clutch of centrist Democrats such as Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who have said they oppose the so-called public option in health care reform legislation that would seek to create a government program to compete with private insurers. A number of Senate Democrats representing states that rely heavily on manufacturing jobs have also expressed concern about the climate change bill that passed the House last week, another Obama priority.
In a statement, the White House said Obama looks "forward to working with Senator-elect Franken to build a new foundation for growth and prosperity by lowering health care costs and investing in the kind of clean energy jobs and industries that will help America lead in the 21st century."
While he will be a back-bencher in his caucus, he will also be thrust into one of the summer's highest-profile pieces of political theater, the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Democrats have been holding a seat on the Judiciary Committee for the Harvard-educated Franken, who will also serve on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a prime perch in the health care debate.
Before his Senate bid, Franken had gained a reputation as a sharply partisan and acerbic Democrat who mocked Republicans but sometimes worried Democrats with his fiery commentaries on television and radio. After leaving Saturday Night Live in 1995, he wrote books attacking the right and hosted a show on the liberal Air America network.
Immediately after the Nov. 4 vote, Coleman led the race by a mere 206 votes out of almost 3 million cast but a statewide recount that lasted until January found that after counting absentee ballots that had been improperly excluded, Franken was ahead by 225 votes.
Coleman filed a formal contest of the election in January, resulting in a two-month long trial where more absentee ballots were counted, and Franken emerged with a 312-vote lead. Coleman appealed the decision by the district court in April.
"The Supreme Court has spoken. We have a United States senator," Coleman said. "It's time to move forward."