WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Sen. Al Franken took office nearly five weeks ago, some skeptics wondered whether he would take the job seriously enough — and whether he would be more concerned with wresting the limelight from more senior lawmakers, rather than with learning the rules and ways of the world’s most exclusive club. Some worried about how he would cope with the enormous amount of work confronting him on the Hill.
But, at this early stage, with Congress now on summer break, at least this much can be said about the performance of Minnesota’s Democratic junior senator: In the first few days and weeks on the job, Al Franken did not self-destruct or seriously stumble.
In fact, he did quite the opposite.
Busy five weeks
In only Week Two, with the nation watching, he aptly participated in Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. By Week Three, he had already offered his first bill, a bipartisan piece of legislation designed to pair service dogs with wounded veterans, which quickly passed the Senate. And, by Weeks Four and Five, he had turned his sights more fully on the massive and complex health care reform measure currently winding its way through Congress.
“It is not about winning, or power, it is about improving people’s lives,” Franken said, paraphrasing the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, in a recent interview with MinnPost. “And this [bill for veterans] is something that will have a real, palpable effect of improving peoples’ lives.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who co-sponsored the bill with Franken, agreed.
“I was happy to co-sponsor his [service dogs] bill,” said Isakson in a recent interview with MinnPost. “It was thoughtful and it was meaningful, particularly with our veterans. I thought that he handled it in exactly the right way by soliciting support.”
In short, Franken did not turn his first month in the Senate into a spectacle. Instead, he ended up exceeding some expectations.
“I have been pleasantly surprised,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I am so happy with him on the committee. He has come as well prepared as anybody there. I am very, very happy to have him on the committee.”
Throughout it all, he also has attempted to lessen his reputation as an attention-seeker. Over the last month, Franken has made a point of avoiding impromptu interviews with reporters in the Capitol, hurrying on to his next appointment instead of chatting — as many senators do — with members of the media, who usually wait outside the Senate chamber.
This is not to say that Franken has been able to completely control his message, or his desired media narrative that would portray him as a workhorse freshman senator who is able to reach across the aisle to get things done.
During last month’s Sonia Sotomayor hearings, for example, Franken’s whimsical comments about Perry Mason grabbed more headlines than his more serious, and relevant, questions and statements about judicial activism on the Supreme Court. More recently, Franken’s apparently heated discussion with oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens at the Senate Democrats’ weekly policy lunch also caused a small media stir and prompted the Minnesota GOP to send out a press release, depicting the incident as an “angry attack.”
So far, only minor bumps in road
But, so far, the bumps have been minor. And, an early legislative victory has allowed Franken to hold onto a certain Mr. Smith-Goes-to-Washington optimism about the power of lawmaking.
On the other hand, Franken will readily admit that he still has a lot to learn, especially when it comes to mastering the Senate’s arcane parliamentary rules and procedures and unique brand of jargon.
For instance, one recent misunderstanding led to a somewhat bizarre, but humorous, moment between Franken and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.
As Franken tells it, he had decided to attend a very perfunctory Judiciary Committee meeting to confirm several nominees. Franken, Sessions, and Leahy happened to be the only committee members in attendance. Each gave an opening statement, with Franken, the least senior member of the committee, going last.
“I had a small opening statement, and at the end of the opening statement I went, ‘Thank you, Mr. Chairman,’ and I turned around and Leahy had left — gotten up to get a cup of coffee or something,” said Franken. “So, I didn’t realize it, but I was now the chairman because I was the highest-ranking member of the majority … So Sessions is looking at me kind of strangely, and I don’t know why he is looking at me strangely because I didn’t realize what was going on. And, he is looking at me and I’m looking at him and he goes, ‘Do you recognize me?’ … And, I went like, ‘Well, of course I recognize you. You’re the senator from Alabama. You’re the ranking member. How could I not recognize you?”
At this point, Sessions began talking and Leahy soon returned. But, Franken didn’t figure out what had happened until later.
“I realized when he said, ‘Do you recognize me?’ It meant, ‘Can I talk? Do you recognize me to speak?’ “
Franken said that he later apologized to Sessions for the misunderstanding.
“We laughed about how silly it was,” Franken said. “It was just the dumbest moment.”
Learning as you go
Like most freshman senators, Franken also has had to grapple with presiding over the Senate, a duty that rotates and gives junior members a hands-on opportunity to learn parliamentary procedure. The presiding senator sits in a raised chair at the front of the Senate chamber and directs the proceedings.
“There was one moment where I was presiding and Lieberman comes and says, ‘Mr. President.’ And, I say, ‘The gentleman from Connecticut.’ And he starts reading this very complicated thing about how we are going to have time limits for debating an amendment, and I am listening to it and I can’t make hide nor hair of anything he’s saying and I’m looking at the back of the head of the parliamentarian to see if he’s figured this out … and the parliamentarian, after it’s all over, says to me, ‘So ordered’ and I go, ‘So ordered.’ And then Joe comes up to me and says, ‘So, as I was reading that, it occurred to me that you probably didn’t understand that any more than I did. And I said, ‘Yeah, well, what would the chances of that be?’ “
Most recently, by chance, it ended up being Franken’s turn to preside when the vote on Sotomayor’s confirmation came up. During his somewhat-halting officiating, Franken consulted the parliamentarian and the Senate clerk multiple times, scribbling notes on a piece of paper as he went. At one point, his hesitation elicited a friendly laugh from the more experienced senators in the room. But, Franken, who did not break to acknowledge the reaction, plodded on.
Moments like these, however, are fairly typical for new senators.
“Everybody has to kind of learn [the parliamentary rules] over the years,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who sits on the Health Committee with Franken. “I have been here for 25 years, and I still find out things I didn’t know.”
On top of a nonstop schedule of Senate events and meetings, Franken also has had to get accustomed to voting. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it isn’t. Senators are expected to be able to vote on almost any matter with very little notice, even if they, or their staff, have no familiarity with the subject.
“I think the most surprising thing [since joining the Senate] was the first time we took a vote and I only had about half an hour to make the vote and, you know, understand what it was about,” Franken said.
It was the same day that Franken was sworn in. He had only 30 minutes to decide how to vote on an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bill, which would have eliminated funding for the over-the-road bus security assistance, a grant program designed to direct funds to certain bus operators to make security improvements.
“It was about a counterterrorism program for bus lines, and I really didn’t have that much time, nor did my staff, to assess the efficacy of the program,” Franken said. “[But] I knew that a couple of bus lines in Minnesota had gotten funding [for counterterrorism efforts].”
In the end, Franken, along with a majority of senators, voted against the amendment — that is, to keep the funding.
Of course, mastering life as a senator will take a lot more time and hard work. But, Franken knows that.
Many a late night already has been spent in his office, surrounded by staff and take-out food, discussing a certain statement, or line of questioning, or bill — most recently the health care reform legislation.
“We bring in some Thai food and talk about the health care bill and then we talk about it again,” Franken said.
Expanding his reach
He also has begun to branch out beyond his assigned committees to learn more about other areas of importance to Minnesotans. For example, Franken recently asked Harkin, who happens to be an old friend and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, if the Iowa senator could introduce him to some of the main players in U.S. agriculture.
“He said, ‘I really have a lot of agriculture interests, and I really want to be active on ag,’ ” Harkin said, adding: “I had him meet with all the ag groups and it was a great meeting … to have him meet them and them meet him … it was just kind of a nice get-to-know-you.”
Coordinating a hectic schedule of committee meetings and votes also has taken some getting used to, according to Franken.
Since coming to the Senate, Franken has tried to make a point of attending all of his committee meetings. Last Tuesday, however, he had to juggle both a health committee hearing on the medical device industry — a topic of great importance to Minnesotans — and a Judiciary Committee hearing on radio stations paying performers royalties to play their songs.
“That was tough because I wanted to be in both places,” Franken said.
Cynthia Dizikes is MinnPost’s Washington, D.C., correspondent. She covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on developments out of Washington that are important to Minnesota readers.