Democratic majority: an opportunity for Coleman?

Sen. Norm Coleman
While Sen. Norm Coleman backs his party most of the time, he has broken ranks and sided with Democrats on several issues, such as Pell Grant funding, Community Development Block Grants and against drilling for oil in an Alaska wildlife refuge.
MPR File Photo/Tim Pugmire

(AP) Sen. Norm Coleman loses two subcommittee chairmanships next year and slides from majority to minority status as the Democrats take over the Senate. But ever the optimist, the Minnesota Republican says he thinks he can pick up some extra clout in the remade Senate.

"Listen, I would prefer to be in the majority, no question about that, but in terms of representing Minnesota, I think there may be added opportunity," he said in a telephone interview this week.

Coleman pointed out that to block a GOP filibuster, Democrats will need 60 votes, not the 51 votes they will have next year.

"If you want to get to 60, you're going to have to get a small group of people you can work with," said Coleman, a former Democrat. "And I'm going to be one of those."

While Coleman backs his party most of the time, he has broken ranks and sided with Democrats on several issues, such as Pell Grant funding, Community Development Block Grants and against drilling for oil in an Alaska wildlife refuge.

"In many ways, being more of centrist here, I've got some added clout, because you've got to get to 60 in the Senate," he said. "When they're at 51, I'm going to be needed."

Coleman said he plans to use that leverage to extract gains for Minnesota.

A spokesman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that Reid is anxious to work with Republicans to get things done in the next Congress.

"Despite the elections, the whole game in the Senate is 60 votes," said the spokesman, Jim Manley. "So any one senator can have a powerful impact on the Senate."

Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., said that Coleman will likely try to position himself as someone who can work with both parties in anticipation of his re-election campaign in 2008.

"So I think he has electoral motivation to pursue that strategy, as well as a more moderate temperament than some other members of his caucus," he said.

"He knows what happened to Mark Kennedy - Mark Kennedy was branded a Bush clone, and he got 38 percent of the vote," Schier said of the defeated Minnesota GOP Senate candidate and congressman. "Minnesota is not Bush country, never really has been. He's never carried it."

Coleman is part of a vanishing group of middle-of-the-road Republicans. Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine and Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee both lost their elections this week.

"Centrists Republicans in the Northeast and Upper Midwest are certainly at risk," Coleman said. "We're from states that still tend to be more blue than purple, and certainly than red."

Democrats are already talking about mounting a challenge to Coleman in two years. Comedian Al Franken, who is considering a run, has started a political action committee, and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told WCCO Radio Friday he wouldn't close the door on a race.

When Democrats take over, Coleman will surrender the chairman's gavel of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and the Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps and Narcotics Affairs subcommittee.

He said he has worked with the ranking Democrats on those panels in a bipartisan manner, and hopes they will reciprocate.

But the investigations subcommittee, in particular, has given Coleman a high profile perch.

Coleman can salvage one committee advantage from the GOP wreckage: he jumps up the seniority ladder on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with the defeat of Chafee and Virginia Republican George Allen. Coleman is now third on the Republican side behind the chairman, Richard Lugar of Indiana, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

"And Lugar's not young," said Coleman, adding he might be line to become chairman or top Republican of the committee in six or eight years. Lugar is 74, and Hagel is 60. Coleman is 57.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.