When the 111th Congress convenes Tuesday, Norm Coleman may be out of an office even though his Senate race remains far from settled.
Coleman’s first term officially expires at noon on Saturday, and he is locked in one of the closest Senate races in history, with Democrat Al Franken clinging to a 49-vote lead out of nearly 3 million votes cast.
Since he has not been certified a winner in the race, Coleman may have to give up his privileges as a senator, including his desk on the floor, his personal office and his right to vote on legislation, according to Democratic aides familiar with the rules.
Some of his staff members could continue to get paid for up to 60 days if they do not find new employment, but each eligible aide would need to return every two weeks and sign an affidavit to certify he or she has not found new work. Coleman still would be able to enter the Senate chambers and meet with his colleagues on the floor, since former members are granted floor privileges so long as they are not registered lobbyists.
It is possible, however, that all of Coleman's privileges may remain intact should the two parties reach an accommodation, and aides signaled that talks were occurring on the matter through Friday.
“We are still reviewing the situation,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
The situation leaves the 111th Congress with two sticky situations starting Tuesday, with Democrats threatening to prevent Roland Burris from claiming the Illinois Senate seat – either through the rules or by the Capitol Police – and Republicans vowing to block any attempt by Franken to take the Minnesota seat before lawsuits are considered.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has considered appointing a temporary replacement, but Democrats say the seat would have to be officially declared vacant before such a move could be allowed.
Attorneys for Coleman’s campaign referred questions about Coleman’s immediate future to his Senate office, and LeRoy Coleman, a spokesman, did not return several inquiries seeking comment.
The state canvassing board is expected to certify a winner next week, and it’s unclear whether either Franken or Coleman would try to claim the seat following that certification. Doing so would spark a backlash since the fight over the election returns will ultimately land in court – and perhaps the Senate, which has a constitutional role in resolving election disputes. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the chief GOP campaign strategist, said he would block any attempt to seat Franken in the Senate until litigation is resolved and a winner is certified.
Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for the Franken campaign, said the former comedian had not made a decision on whether to make the trek to Capitol Hill next week, saying he would take it “one step at a time.”