WASHINGTON -- Four months after Election Day, the fight over Minnesota's U.S. Senate seat drags on with no clear end in sight. And that may be working to the Republicans' advantage.
Party leaders say they are digging in for a prolonged legal process, keeping Democrats from claiming a seat they think is theirs -- and hampering the majority party's ability to push through its agenda.
The current phase of the lawsuit over the close election is entering its final stretch, as both sides made their final arguments Friday. Most significant rulings during the seven-week trial have gone in favor of Democrat Al Franken. As a result, his 225-vote lead out of 2.9 million ballots counted has apparently expanded -- though there is no official tally -- and few independent analysts think Republican Norm Coleman is likely to prevail in his re-election bid.
But Republicans can claim a kind of strategic victory by blocking the Democratic former comedian's path to the Senate, which requires 60 votes to pass controversial items. Democrats there currently have 58.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, asked Friday if he would encourage Mr. Coleman to pursue his case further in the courts if he loses the current round, responded: "I would, until we know who won." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid replied with a statement headlined, "Minnesota needs representation, not legal challenges."
Mr. Coleman's attorneys have been publicly critical of the court's rulings, which may suggest they are contemplating an appeal.
Both sides are raising money actively for the prospect of a prolonged court case. The Republican National Committee transferred $250,000 at the end of January to help with the legal battle, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee has added $10,000. Republican officials say Mr. Coleman has raised more than $5 million for the recount.
On the other side, the Democratic National Committee is contributing $250,000, while the Franken team has raised more than $6 million.
David Schultz, who teaches election law at Hamline University in St. Paul, said that if the GOP can't win the seat, its goal is to keep it open. "The Republicans' endgame strategy is to keep Al Franken out of office as long as possible," Mr. Schultz said. "Al Franken is No. 59."
Supporters of Mr. Coleman dismiss this, saying their goal is victory, not delay. "We want to get this done as quickly as possible, but it is important to get this right," said Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg.
The standoff has created one of the few times in history when the Senate has lacked its full complement. This is due partly to a law, unique to Minnesota, saying the state can't certify a senator until legal challenges have ended.
The empty seat presents particular challenges for Mr. Reid, especially because two other Democratic Senate seats are also in a state of uncertainty despite Democrats' November triumph. Sen. Roland Burris of Illinois is under an ethics cloud, though efforts to remove him are faltering, while Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts is ill and has been absent during key votes.
On the $787 billion stimulus bill, Democrats could have made fewer concessions if they had needed to attract just one Republican. Instead, they needed two (and got three). On a recent $410 billion spending bill, Mr. Reid, of Nevada, was one vote shy, forcing him to delay the vote and exposing the bill to more attacks.
That single senator also could make a difference on coming bills, such as a proposal to allow workers to organize unions by signing cards and skirting secret-ballot elections.
The dragged-out case has also put a burden on the state's lone senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar. Her state office has been juggling twice the caseload as a year ago, and calls to her Washington office have increased five-fold.
"One day I had 17 different meetings, from college students to the CEO of Best Buy to a veterans group," Ms. Klobuchar said in an interview.
In Minnesota, Messrs. Franken and Coleman have concluded their arguments in the seven-week trial before a special three-judge panel, and a decision is expected within a week or two. The loser can then appeal to the state supreme court, and potentially to the federal courts. The process could go on for months.
But if Mr. Coleman's fortunes in court don't improve, he may face pressure to withdraw. Polls suggest Minnesota voters are becoming impatient with the standoff, and Mr. Coleman may want to preserve his political standing to run for governor in 2010.—Susan Davis contributed to this article.