Friday, Dec. 5, 2008 | 2 a.m.
After all Nevada’s two senators have been through these past two years, it’s hard to believe they would come to blows over Minnesota.
- A lingering case of election-itis (11-30-2008)
Yet fighting words suddenly are pouring out as Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign stake out positions on the only remaining undecided Senate race. Minnesota ballots are being counted and recounted to find a winner between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken, the comedian.
Coleman has mostly held a narrow lead of barely 300 votes, but Franken momentarily outpaced him this final week of the recount. Another 117 ballots suddenly turned up, inflicting perhaps more drama than resolution on the race.
Reid and Ensign are involved by virtue of their Senate positions. Reid is leader of the majority Democrats and Ensign’s job through the November elections was to try to win seats for Republicans.
Despite those conflicting roles, the two managed to avoid direct confrontation. But now, with the recount murky, the possibility arises that the Senate itself could decide the outcome.
That is not as crazy as it sounds. The Constitution allows both houses of Congress to be the ultimate arbiters of membership. Senate Historian Donald A. Ritchie says the Senate has been deciding disputed elections since 1790. He has a 400-page book of cases in his office.
The most recent undertaking was the 10-month Senate investigation into the disputed 1996 Louisiana race, launched after Republican candidate Louis Elwood “Woody” Jenkins challenged Democrat Mary Landrieu’s victory. The Senate Rules Committee of the then-Republican controlled chamber ultimately sided with Landrieu, who won a third term this fall.
Reid suggested last week that steps must be taken to “ensure no voter is disenfranchised” in the Minnesota contest.
The comment infuriated Republicans who told Reid to stay out of the race. Ensign warned that the Senate is no substitute for the will of the Minnesota voters.
“I think that the Democratic majority will not want to see this come to the Senate,” Ensign said this week, according to a report in American Spectator. “There will be a heavy political price to pay” if the choice of Minnesota voters is overturned, Ensign said.
Democrats have had a big year, picking up seven Senate seats for a robust 58-seat majority. If they were to add Minnesota, Democrats would be to the 60-seat threshold required to prevent Republicans from blocking the legislative agenda with filibusters, assuming all senators vote along party lines — which is far from guaranteed on many issues.
Democrats have downplayed the possibility of Senate intervention. When asked by the Las Vegas Sun on Wednesday if the Senate would take up the Minnesota contest, Reid said, “I hope we don’t have to.”
Politico, a Washington newspaper, noted Thursday that the Senate Rules Committee could very well be run next year by Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. Schumer ran the Democrats’ campaign committee for the November election.
Journalism professor Charles Seife, in an op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times, said the recount is doomed because the margin for human error is greater than that now separating winner from loser.
Seife, who teaches at New York University, suggested a coin toss could be the best resolution.
He might be on to something. A coin flip might make things easier on the Reid-Ensign relationship.