Franken talks about Sotomayor, ethanol, health care, service dogs and Obama

Sen.-elect Al Franken’s plate is full. On his first full day of being the certified senator-to-be from Minnesota, Franken spoke about some key issues this morning in an interview with

On President Obama:
The president called last night and congratulated him. It was a three or four minute conversation. They’ve known each other since Obama was an Illinois state senator and Franken was a radio host.

On health care legislation, a key focus of his campaign and a pet issue:
“I’m getting there a little late, that’s one of my regrets that I haven’t been there for the debate,” Franken said. “I have to see what the lay of the land is.”

Rep. Keith Ellison has criticized the evolving Senate bill because it dilutes a public plan.

Franken said he needs to see the final details in the Senate bill, but on Obama’s handling of the issue, he said: “I think he took a lesson from ’93 and ’94 and didn’t give a bill to the Congress that was fully done, without [Congressional] input. This is kind of the opposite. But he’s going to have to weigh in.”

On Sonia Sotomayor:
As a new member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Franken will vote on Sotomayor’s confirmation. “I’m predisposed to her,” he said. “From everything I’ve read she’s in the mainstream of American jurisprudence, she has an amazing biography, she seems like a brilliant woman, but I’ll be part of those hearings and hear what she has to say.”

Much has been made of Obama’s assertion that he wants a justice with empathy. Does Franken want a justice with empathy?

“Empathy is simply being able to understand what the effect of your decision has on people’s lives,” he said. “In the same way, I have to decide what the effect of my decisions is on people’s lives in Minnesota. A judge has to understand that. I don’t think anyone argues with that…I think this is something that everyone has accepted, a judge’s life experience does affect how they approach the law.”

He noted that when Justice Samuel Alito was appointed, he mentioned the impact of his family’s immigrant past. But with Sotomayor and her poor-girl-makes-good narrative, the notion “took a weird turn,” Franken said.

Franken added that one thing that he didn’t like about Chief Justice John Roberts’ confirmation hearings in 2005 was Roberts’ assertion that, Franken said, “My job is to call balls and strikes. It isn’t. Your job is to define the strike zone.”

Said Franken: “Supreme Court justices don’t call balls and strikes. It isn’t what they do. It isn’t mechanistic. We don’t appoint computers and robots to the Supreme Court.”

Franken paused.

“I’ll leave that to future generations,” he added.

On the Climate Change bill and its strong ethanol components:

 “What we’re talking about here is the science of how ethanol affects our carbon footprint,” Franken said. “The science to me tells me it helps. I’ve looked at this a lot, and it seems to me that ethanol already helps our carbon footprint and it’s only getting more efficient in the way it’s produced. Corn ethanol is a step on the way to cellulosic ethanol, which is also going to benefit Minnesota. I’m in the pro-ethanol camp.”

On the first bill he hopes to introduce:
It concerns service dogs and veterans. He wants to start a pilot program with trained dogs to help veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder and physical injuries. Dogs can open doors. Answer phones. Dogs can aid in boosting the mental health of veterans, who have experiencing an alarming suicide rate.

“When you go out for a walk with your service dog, people come up to you, so it breaks isolation,” Franken said.

No total cost estimate yet — each dog costs about $20,000 to train —  but some evidence suggests it can bring down health care costs and allow some veterans who otherwise can’t work to work. Franken said he’ll have to bring it to a committee he’s not on.

On his swearing in:
Could be Tuesday, might not be. He and his wife, Franni, have found a place to live on Capitol Hill, where he will also work beginning next week.

Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 07/01/2009 - 05:24 pm.

    $20,000 for a dog is cheap compared to medical costs, not to mention anything that reduces the suffering of the wounded vet.

  2. Submitted by Tom Hayes on 07/02/2009 - 06:46 pm.

    I’m encouraged by Senator Franken’s comments, it’s obvious he’s been both paying attention to and reflecting on the key issues in the Senate.

    He’s right about the value of ethanol, for instance, as an economically useful bridge to move the country away from dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuels. There’s room for concern about carbon dioxide, naturally, but it’s better coming out the tailpipe than what happens when we burn gasoline, obviously.

    I’m particularly impressed with his insights into the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice Roberts. The Senator has obviously been paying attention to D.C. for many, many years. He’ll be a breath of fresh air on the Judiciary committee, and I look for him to remain interested in the well-being of Minnesotans.

  3. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 07/02/2009 - 10:10 pm.

    “but it’s better coming out the tailpipe than what happens when we burn gasoline, obviously.”

    That is not only not obvious, it actually isn’t true. When you take the carbon footprint of the entire production process into account, corn ethanol is worse for the environment than oil. The return on the energy spent producing corn ethanol is also so poor it does almost nothing to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Corn ethanol was a terrible idea that is on its way out. Its disspointing to see Franken buying into this garbage.

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