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Barkley to remain independent
Minnesota's interim U.S. Sen. Dean Barkley says he will remain independent in the U.S. Senate - caucusing neither with Republicans or Democrats. Barkley announced his decision Monday afternoon. There will be a ceremonial swearing in for Barkley on the floor of the Senate Tuesday. He'll also meet with President Bush and attend a presidential reception for newly elected members of Congress. Republican Sen.-elect Norm Coleman, who will take Barkley's place early next year, will also be there.

Washington, D.C. — Since setting foot in the nation's capital late last week, Dean Barkley has been besieged by reporters. The big question, since Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed fellow Independence Party member Barkley the day before last week's election, has been whether Barkley would end up caucusing with Republicans, or with Democrats.

Barkley says by remaining independent, he'll be best able to influence legislation in the lame-duck session of Congress.

"I've talked with my staff, I've talked to all of the parties that have an interest, I heard their best arguments. I sat down and I thought, which way can I be most effective in these two months that I have here," Barkley says. "It's that simple -- whether I caucus Republican, Democrat, or stay independent -- which I think I can leverage my position to get things done."

An even in making his caucus decision, Barkley began leveraging. Late Monday afternoon, Barkley placed calls to the Senate leadership, starting with South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, who -- because of Barkley's decision -- will remain the Senate's majority leader in the short term.

In return for not caucusing with Republicans, Barkley requested of Daschle that the majority leader do whatever it takes to get the Homeland Security bill to the floor of the Senate for a vote.

Barkley says Daschle sounded pleasantly surprised that Barkley was not linking with Republicans. Barkley says Republican Minority Leader Trent Lott sounded disappointed.

Until the vote count for Sen.-elect Jim Talent, a Republican from Missouri, is certified, Barkley will enjoy tie-breaker status in the Senate. And because so much legislation was left undone before Congress adjourned, Barkley is hopeful major policy decisions could emerge from the lame-duck session.

"This vote is so closely divided, my vote on a lot of issues might decide whether it passes or not. I think I have a unique opportunity to leverage that to get some things done," says Barkley.

In addition to helping pass a Homeland Security bill, Barkley wants to secure an extension of a Minnesota federal welfare waiver, which allows the state to creatively experiment with the distribution of its federal welfare funds, providing things like child care, transportation assistance and educational opportunities to welfare recipients.

Barkley also wants to work toward passage of the mental health parity bill. The bill was a top priority of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. It would require insurance companies to provide mental health coverage at rates comparable to other standard medical benefits. The bill is awaiting action in the Senate.

Finally, Barkley says he hopes to work with the rest of Minnesota's congressional delegation to pass what he's calling a living memorial to Sen. Wellstone and his wife Sheila, who died in a plane crash in October.

Barkley says he will not step down when the results of Minnesota's Senate election are certified later this month. However Barkley says he would be open to leaving the Senate a few days early, if that would help Sen.-elect Norm Coleman.

Coleman, who'll be in Washington Tuesday for a presidential reception for newly-elected members of Congress, says his staff has determined getting sworn in several weeks early would not be of any benefit to Coleman, because it's too late. That said, Coleman still has an interest in getting some type of jump on the official Jan. 7 swearing in of new members.

"There is some benefit for some office space and other things, and actually setting up my team by coming in a little bit early. That could be a day or two," Coleman says. "More important than that is Senator Barkley's willingness to have some of my staff, my folks be part of his interim period, so we can really get a jump-start doing the work for Minnesota. So he's been extremely cooperative and I'm looking forward to working with him."

Barkley says short of stepping down in the next few weeks, he wants to do whatever he can to help best position Coleman, even if it means sharing some of his $500,000 interim budget with Coleman staffers.

"I've got a pretty significant budget. Maybe I could do something to help get some of his people on the job early, because I want to make his tenure here as productive as I can," says Barkley. "If it makes sense to resign a day or two early, I'm certainly not opposed to that. Obviously, Governor Ventura has to make that call because he's the one who would have to do it. So I'm open to that if it makes sense."

After Tuesday's swearing in, Barkley will make his first Senate floor speech, a five-minute eulogy of Sen. Wellstone. From Capitol Hill, Barkley will head to the White House and the Oval Office for a private meeting with President Bush, then the White House reception for newly-elected members of Congress.

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