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Franken goes back to work — but can he still get work done?

Franken’s voice was already conspicuously missing on several issues on which he had been a champion.

Sen. Al Franken addressing the media outside his office on Capitol Hill on Nov. 27.
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

On Wednesday evening, Sen. Al Franken was, as promised, back at work in the U.S. Senate.

The chamber was in the midst of a massive battle on taxes, as Republicans began to push through a sweeping rewrite of the U.S. tax code. Franken was in the midst of a battle of his own: fighting off an ongoing sexual harassment scandal, in which four women — to that point — had come forward to say that Franken had groped them or, in one case, forcibly kissed her.

Minnesota’s junior senator is typically a gregarious presence on the Senate floor, freely dispensing back slaps and his trademark machine-gun cackle. As senators voted on a procedural motion to advance the GOP tax plan, Franken flitted about the Senate floor tentatively, registering his no vote on the measure, making a quiet effort to socialize with his colleagues. A few of his male colleagues put their hands on his shoulders as they briefly chatted. Franken had an animated chat with Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall.

Some of his female colleagues were more circumspect. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who returned $30,000 in donations from Franken’s PAC after the first allegations hit, did not acknowledge Franken for several lingering moments as she talked to someone else. New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a member of the Ethics Committee that is investigating Franken, simply arched her eyebrows at Franken as they passed each other.

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For Franken, his promise to get back to work in the Senate and slowly regain Minnesotans’ trust — and the trust of his colleagues and others in Washington — is easier said than done. And that’s before factoring in the two new allegations of misconduct that surfaced against Franken on Thursday, including one from a woman who was then serving in the U.S. military in Iraq.

Observers of Franken, and the senator’s own allies, say the ongoing scandal diminishes his standing in Washington and in Minnesota, decreasing his value as an advocate, fundraiser, and campaigner for Democrats and for Minnesotans.  

A missing giant of the Senate

The most striking example of Franken’s diminished clout came soon after Leeann Tweeden posted her account, on Nov. 16, that Franken forcibly kissed her during a USO tour in 2006, and released a photo showing a grinning Franken with his hands hovering over her breasts.

For months, Franken had been working with Abby Honold, a student at the University of Minnesota and a rape survivor whose experience with law enforcement after her rape prompted her to advocate for reforms to help police better assist victims of sexual violence.

Honold asked Franken earlier this year to lead her legislation in the Senate. Shortly after Tweeden’s story came out, Honold asked Franken to take his name off the bill, which he did. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is now its lead sponsor.

“It was really crushing to have this change up,” Honold told NPR, “and especially, so many of the amazing people in Senator Franken’s office that I’ve worked with. But I’m trying to remind myself that the most important thing is that victims are helped with this legislation.”

Franken had long positioned himself as a champion for women, a claim he has reiterated in the wake of the allegations against him. One of his first moves as a U.S. senator in 2009 was to push for legislation prohibiting the government from giving contracts to defense firms without strong workplace harassment protections.

Franken has also found himself on the sidelines of other policy fights he has relished in the past.  Net neutrality — the idea that the internet should be regulated similar to a utility, with minimal restrictions on access and no discrimination of content — is an illuminating example.

On Nov. 21, the Federal Communications Commission issued a proposal that would overturn a landmark rule from the Barack Obama administration that codified net neutrality protections into law.

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This prompted widespread alarm and concern among net neutrality advocates in Congress. Franken, at one point, was perhaps the Senate’s loudest and most prominent advocate for net neutrality, and frequently spoke on the chamber’s floor and sent out press releases on the topic.

In the wake of the FCC’s significant policy move, Franken’s office did not send out any press release with the senator’s response to the news. Since Nov. 16, his office has only sent out statements related to the allegations against him. (MinnPost has made multiple requests for an interview with Franken.)

Net neutrality proponents in Congress noted Franken’s absence. First District Rep. Tim Walz said he was concerned that the scandal has made the senator unable to be an effective advocate at a critical moment for the issue.

“The senator’s voice on net neutrality was one of a champion,” Walz told MinnPost. “I looked to him on that. … That voice in the Senate is louder than my voice in the House.”

More broadly, Walz said, “The senator’s going to have to decide if he can be effective.”

Is the damage permanent?

There have been other instances, too, illustrating the degree to which Franken has been diminished by the scandal. The day Tweeden’s story came out, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, moved to ignore Franken withholding his “blue slip” of approval for David Stras, a Minnesota Supreme Court justice up for appointment to the federal bench.

Franken withholding the blue slip — a tradition granted to senators for judicial nominees from their state —  had held up a hearing for Stras for months. On Wednesday, Stras appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and was questioned by Franken, his first significant committee appearance since the allegations broke.

Grassley was likely to bypass Franken anyway, but the timing of his move was not lost on some observers.

Franken has also been absent from more routine Senate functions. A Tuesday letter from the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, a bipartisan group of senators who advocate on Great Lakes issues, to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bore the signatures of all Democratic senators from Great Lakes states — except Franken’s. His name had been on a Task Force letter to the Office of Management and Budget just a month ago.

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Few were expecting Franken to be at full force in the immediate aftermath of the harassment allegations against him. But his decision to stay in office and return to work has prompted observers to wonder when, or if, Franken can return to his former capacity.

Many Democratic operatives and staffers remain reluctant to speak on the record about Franken at this stage. The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party did not comment for this story.

According to Steven Schier, a professor of politics at Carleton College, it may be a long time, if ever, before Franken, the outspoken progressive hero, returns.

“I don’t think you’ll see him being an issue leader in committee and on the Senate floor as he was in recent years, at least for the time being,” he said. “He’s not going to be viewed by colleagues as an asset, as a conspicuous co-sponsor.”

Referencing the Stras hearing this week, Schier remarked that “the red-hot Franken” from past committee questionings was notably absent.

“He’s hoping that, by lying low, memories will be short, he can become more effective in the Senate and more visible, and he’ll weather the storm. The real issue is whether the damage is permanent or not,” Schier said.

“There’s a fair chance this is permanent.”