Former comedian Al Franken was declared the top vote-getter Monday in Minnesota's long-disputed U.S. Senate race, but incumbent Republican Norm Coleman pledged an immediate legal challenge that could delay the final outcome for months.
The Senate is scheduled to convene today with one other seat in doubt: Roland Burris' appointment to succeed President-elect Barack Obama in the chamber is under challenge. If Franken eventually is seated, along with a Democratic appointee from Illinois, the party still would be one vote shy of a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority.
"After 62 days, after the careful and painstaking inspection of nearly 3 million ballots, after hours and hours of hard work by elections officials and volunteers across the state, I am proud and humbled to stand before you as the next senator from Minnesota," Franken said after the state canvassing board endorsed the results of a recount that gave the former "Saturday Night Live" star a 225-vote lead.
But Coleman, whose term expired Saturday, did not concede, and his lawyers said they would file a legal challenge to block final certification by Minnesota's Republican governor and the secretary of state. Before the recount, Coleman was ahead by 215 of the 2.9 million votes cast.
His lawyers said Monday that the incumbent had "serious problems" with the recount, including the counting of a batch of ballots discovered after election night, the alleged double-counting of some ballots and the validation of 133 votes that had no ballots to support them. Coleman's camp also plans to ask for a review of the Minnesota Supreme Court's preliminary decision Monday not to include 654 disputed absentee ballots.
"This process isn't at the end. It is now just at the beginning. We will contest the results of the canvassing board. Otherwise, literally millions of Minnesotans will be disenfranchised," Coleman campaign counsel Tony Trimble told reporters.
Trimble said the challenge would be filed within 24 hours of the board's certification vote Monday afternoon.
Analysts said the next round of hearings and evidence gathering could take weeks or months. The determination would be made by a three-judge panel appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak said it would be premature for the incumbent to concede.
"It's one thing to concede an election if you think it's been fairly counted. It's another thing to concede an election if there are literally hundreds of votes that we think are part of an improper tally, that we think are the reason for this lead," he said.
In a brief appearance shortly after the canvassing board met, Franken acknowledged that "there may still be additional legal proceedings related to our recount. But I'm now in the business of serving the people of Minnesota. And the best way I can serve the people of Minnesota right now is to focus all my attention and all my energies on getting to work for them on the issues we'll be facing together."
Kathryn Pearson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, said Senate Democrats could seek to seat Franken by a majority vote, with the proviso that he step down if the legal challenge succeeds.
"It's conceivable that Franken could be seated," she said. "But it's not a good way for either party to start off opening day of a new Senate. I think everybody wants, given the economic and political circumstances, for senators on both sides of the aisle to have an incentive to start out in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation."
In a brief statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said: "Al Franken won the election. Al Franken is ahead by 225 votes. Everything's over with. . . . There comes a time when you have to acknowledge that the race is over."
But his spokesman, Jim Manley, said later that there would be no effort to seat Franken today.
"Now that the bipartisan state canvassing board has certified Al Franken as the winner, we hope Sen. Coleman respects its decision and does not drag this out for months with litigation," he said in a statement. "Shortly after election day, Coleman criticized Mr. Franken for wanting a recount and wasting taxpayer money. Now that it is clear he lost, Coleman should follow his own advice and not subject the people of Minnesota to a costly legal battle."
Republicans, however, insisted they would oppose any attempt to short-circuit a full legal challenge.
"When elections are being decided by double-counted votes and double standards in the treatment of absentee ballots, there must be a remedy to get an accurate and valid vote total -- that remedy is an election contest," Republican National Committee Chairman Robert M. Duncan said in a statement.
"I am confident that if the law is followed, Norm Coleman will be taking his rightful seat in the U.S. Senate."