There is no one Republicans were more determined to keep out of the Senate than comedian Al Franken. It wasn't just that Franken had ridiculed their misrule over the past eight years with a stack of bestselling books and a three-year stint on Air America radio. GOP bosses who listened to what Franken was saying as he challenged Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman came to recognize that while the Saturday Night Live alum knew how to get a laugh, he was also a policy wonk with a "great communicator" flair for getting to the heart of economic matters. Ultimately, it was that skill that allowed Franken--a smart critic of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's initial schemes for bailing out Wall Street--to overcome the brutal assault from Coleman and his corporate cronies.
And overcome it he has. After one of the longest Senate recount fights in recent history, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party contender for the seat once held by his friend Paul Wellstone was certified January 5 by the state canvassing board as the winner--by 225 votes. That's something of a landslide in a contest that saw the margin between Franken and Coleman fall to single digits at points during the two-month review of 3 million ballots. But the fact that Franken has prevailed won't stop the cruder players in a down-on-its-luck Senate Republican caucus and their media mouthpieces from trying to deny Minnesota the senator it has chosen.
Coleman's lawyers, despite multiple setbacks in the courts, claim they have only begun to mount legal challenges--operating, it seems, on the theory that they might yet find a venue as friendly as the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court. And Coleman's allies in the Senate are still maneuvering to keep Franken out of the chamber. The ringleader for the denial-of-democracy crowd is Texan John Cornyn, a fierce partisan who is seeking a leg up in his role as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee by depressing the Democratic majority in the new Senate. Cornyn announced plans to filibuster any move to seat Franken before every last legal challenge in the contest is resolved, even though Franken has not demanded special treatment.
"This is a very, very serious matter. I can assure you that there will be no way that people on our side of the aisle will agree to seat any senator without a valid certificate," grumbled Cornyn, trying to foster the fantasy that the Democrats were somehow gaming the system. This "messaging" by the man who will manage efforts by Senate Republicans to retake the chamber in 2010 echoed the Wall Street Journal editorial page's prevarication that Minnesota's open, transparent and bipartisan recount process has somehow been corrupted by the Franken team. Noting the makeup of the canvassing board, former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson, a Republican, dismissed the criticisms from the Coleman camp and national GOP operatives, saying, "When you've had two Republican Supreme Court Justices involved in the process, you can't very well come back and say, Gee, I think it's been partisanly tinged."
Cornyn and the Journal's editors and allies are practicing Big Lie politics as the Senate is having a hard enough time organizing itself--a task muddled by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's appointment of a replacement for President-elect Obama and by the struggles of other governors to fill the seats of Vice President-elect Joe Biden of Delaware, Secretary of State-designee Hillary Clinton of New York and Interior Secretary-designee Ken Salazar of Colorado. (Cornyn made pronouncements about the Illinois imbroglio, although here he paralleled Senate majority leader Harry Reid's original disinclination to seat Blagojevich's choice, Roland Burris.)
In all likelihood Franken will be seated despite Cornyn's machinations. But the Texas senator's signals--and the implicit support he has received from minority leader Mitch McConnell--are unsettling when the chamber is under pressure to move quickly to review and approve Obama's cabinet picks and a near-trillion-dollar economic-stimulus proposal that McConnell has indicated Senate Republicans will challenge. If Cornyn is threatening to abuse the filibuster power--to which the GOP clings by the narrowest of margins (forty-one votes are needed to block Senate deliberations)--in order to vent Republicans' frustration over Franken's victory, the party is starting a difficult Congressional session on an obstructionist footing.
If the Republicans, who have been routed in the past two election cycles, are determined to reject the will of an American electorate that has since 2006 expanded the Senate Democratic Caucus membership from forty-five to fifty-nine, the Democrats had better be ready to play hardball. Reid and his compatriots (including Franken) must push back. If they don't challenge the filibuster privilege outright, then they must at least pressure Republican moderates like Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter and Mainers Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to cooperate. After all, if Republicans like Cornyn define their party's role as that of obstruction at every turn, this Senate will cease to function when it comes time to chart the new economic and foreign policy courses that voters demanded November 4.