WASHINGTON, D.C. — At least one thing is certain about Minnesota’s open Senate seat — whoever fills it will have a lot of catching up to do.
Since early January, Congress has been moving at a gut-gripping clip, hurling legislation on wage discrimination and children’s healthcare through both houses and to the president’s pen in just one month.
Now, with passage of the massive economic stimulus bill all but assured to occur before Monday, and another financial bailout plan in the works, there promises to be plenty more to get lost in than the Capitol’s labyrinthine hallways.
Former Sen. Norm Coleman, of course, is familiar with the ways of the Senate.
But what’s a potential first-time senator to do?
Al Franken, Democratic contender for the vacant Senate seat, has employed this generally reliable strategy: the more you know the better.
When Franken isn’t busy trying to resolve the election recount with Republican Coleman, he’s been reading up on Senate procedure and policy, chatting regularly with members of the Minnesota delegation, Senate staffers and Democratic leadership and making occasional trips to Washington, D.C.
“I think it’s my third time here,” said Franken on Thursday at the end of his most recent Capitol jaunt.
“I just want to be able to hit the ground running and know the business that is before the Senate and know what my colleagues are thinking and just what the state of play is and the lay of the land.”
But the lay of this particular land can seem as foreign as Pluto at times. Some of the Senate rules, for instance, would flummox even the most facile mind.
Take the anonymous hold — the all-powerful procedure that allows a senator to anonymously stop a piece of legislation in its tracks for six session days before public notice is required.
“It is anonymous for six days, but they have a way to get around it,” Franken said. “Somebody does the hold for six days and then he passes the hold to somebody else and then that person passes it back again so it stays anonymous… Isn’t that ridiculous?”
Luckily, Franken has surrounded himself with some very experienced people to help him through the delightful intricacies of parliamentary procedure.
When in Washington the former entertainer crashes at the home of Congressional expert Norm Ornstein, who is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank.
During this trip, he also talked to Tamara Luzzatto, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s former chief of staff. Franken said that he thinks he has a lot to learn from the former senator from New York who is now U.S. secretary of state.
“A lot of people have been telling me that I should really study what Hillary did,” Franken said. “Hillary came to the Senate and really did an exceptional job winning the respect of colleagues and getting things done and being a great senator.”
Her secret, according to Franken: “I guess the basic thing is to keep your head down and do the work.”
And there will be no shortage of work. The remaining open committee spots are on the Senate’s Health, Education, Pension and Labor Committee, the Indian Affairs Committee, and the Special Committee on Aging.
Franken has already been thinking of what he might focus on in the health committee if he is seated. Two early priorities include working on legislation that would prohibit political appointees from changing the language in a scientific report and figuring out universal health care, Franken said.
And policy plans are only a part of it. When it comes to getting things done in the nation’s capital, a person’s social agenda can be just as important.
On Tuesday evening, Franken dined with a number of Democratic senators at one of Washington’s local haunts. The impromptu gathering included the likes of Democratic Whip Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Minnesota’s lone Senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar.
Conversation topics ranged from politics to places to live in D.C. to old Hubert Humphrey tales.
Franken wasn’t the only Senate hopeful in Washington this week. Coleman also traveled to Washington for a fundraiser at the National Republican Senatorial Committee to help Coleman raise money for the recount. Coleman returned to St. Paul for the recount trial today as his campaign posted a video at YouTube and sought contributions for the expensive legal fight.
Of course, there is only so much a person can do when stuck in political limbo. Although Franken won the election recount by 225 votes, Coleman has contested the results and the two are locked in an on-going legal battle.
“Washington is an exciting place and it is a place where I really look forward to getting things done,” Franken said Thursday.
“The new senators that I was talking to were very excited and were very immersed in what they were doing and I was very,” Franken paused.
“Resentful,” he said with a broad grin and his signature chortle.
Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes [at] minnpost [dot] com.