Franken wags a bit sharper tongue

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 6, 2010 - 6:19 AM

A year into his Senate seat, he's scored with legislation, fundraising - and pointed words.

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Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., left, listens to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, right, as she testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Photo: Susan Walsh, Associated Press - Ap

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WASHINGTON - Al Franken was not joking.

The Minnesota Democrat, presiding over the Senate, wouldn't allow Sen. Joe Lieberman "just an additional moment" to finish a thought on the health care bill.

Time had run out, Franken told the stunned Connecticut Democrat, who asked to conclude his remarks. "In my capacity as senator from Minnesota," Franken said, "I object."

The moment, now a popular YouTube video, left veteran senators like John McCain fuming. But it showed Franken -- even if he was just following instructions -- in hyper-serious mode.

Franken was just good enough to win a litigious U.S. Senate recount election a year ago, and smart enough to generally stay out of the national spotlight once he got there.

Since then, as if channeling the "daily affirmations" of his old "Saturday Night Live" character Stuart Smalley, Franken has stuck assiduously to a step-by-step program for transforming himself from comedian to legitimate lawmaker.

Since being sworn in last July, the former satirist and liberal pundit has largely succeeded in positioning himself as a player on two of the most important measures of worth in Washington: getting bills passed and raising money, a sphere in which he has not been shy about using his old show business connections.

Franken also has recovered the sharpness of his tongue, using a recent speech in Washington, D.C., to uncork a withering critique of the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts, whom he accused of taking "a fist with brass knuckles" to the rights of ordinary people against corporate America.

The speech was treated on the left as a coming-out party. On the right, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote that the author of "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot" had basically "relapsed."

Franken says he does not view the speech as a breakout moment but rather as a way to reframe the debate over President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.

"What I see is every decision they've made has been on behalf of large corporations against average working people," Franken said of Roberts and like-voting justices. "I think that's not such a radical take on this court."

Significantly, he also vows to keep speaking out "when I think it's really called for" -- a move that could noticeably recalibrate his stature in national politics, where he has a media platform anytime he wants it.

Air America Franken

"I see a little bit of Air America Al Franken coming out," said Hamline University political scientist David Schultz. "He's going back to the persona that endeared him to a lot of liberals, which was bashing really hard on the opposition."

If so, the relative quiet since Franken's swearing-in last July 7 could be the calm before the storm.

Analysts say it's inevitable that a celebrity-turned-pol like Franken would have his every word scrutinized -- one reason that Franken has been judicious with his remarks until now, hustling past the daily press scrums in the Capitol and turning down serial invitations to go on TV.

"I want my colleagues to see me as someone who is trying to get things done, not who's trying to steal their camera time," Franken said.

Until now, aside from a few minor skirmishes with Republican colleagues -- chronicled in a GOP opposition research dossier titled "Sen. Franken's Breaches of Decorum" -- Franken has provided little comic fodder for his opponents. As Stuart Smalley might have said, doggone it, some Republicans even like him.

Nearly a dozen GOP senators have sponsored bills with him, including Orrin Hatch of Utah, who devoted one winter evening to helping Franken with the musical bridge to a country ditty he was trying to write.

"While Al Franken and I are still striving to see eye to eye on a lot of things, we do agree that the world needs a little humor once in a while," Hatch said.

Humor aside, Franken, 59, has developed a reputation as a policy "wonk" who does his homework before public hearings, sometimes with the help of his wife, Franni. Laboring at night to study the prepared statements of witnesses, he can cross-examine with trial-lawyer intensity.

Said fellow DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a former Hennepin County Attorney, "Al has been a quick learner in his first year in the Senate, and he's working hard on important issues."

'Angry Al'?

On the national scene, Franken's Supreme Court speech established him as the Judiciary Committee senator to watch in Democratic efforts to wrest control of the ideological debate over what constitutes judicial activism.

From the start, Franken has had to contend with his old life resurfacing amid his fresh start.

On his fifth day in office, just as he was trying to establish serious cred in the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of his old "Saturday Night Live" sketches lampooning Senate confirmation hearings surfaced on the Internet.

Franken says he's not running away from his previous life. "This is a different job," he said. "I know that."

But the desire to skewer political opponents still burns.

The election of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown in January denied Democrats the filibuster-proof 60-vote majority that Franken's election had accorded them six months earlier. With the Democrats' health care agenda in a deep winter chill, Franken told a Families USA conference that the bill's opponents were using "lies and disinformation" to scare the public.

In a further reprise of his Air America past, Franken recalled former House Speaker Sam Rayburn, who once said, "Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one."

"Sam was a Texan," Franken told the conference. "In Minnesota, we don't use words like jackass. We call them 'donkeys.'"

Franken's GOP detractors have seized on such utterances as evidence that their old "Angry Al" caricature lurks just beneath the surface of his studious, bespectacled exterior.

"At first I think there was some restraint, but after a while I think he fell back into being himself," said Minnesota GOP Party Chairman Tony Sutton. "It's not just your philosophy, but the way you go about expressing it. Regardless of all the handling, if you're an angry, ticked-off guy, that's just going to come through."

But even as Franken ran afoul of a few Republican senators in well-publicized scrapes with John Thune of South Dakota and Bob Corker of Tennessee, he has also bent over backwards to make friends across the aisle -- a prerequisite for getting things done in the Senate.

"This is in sharp contrast with both Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone, who broke into the Senate by offending senior colleagues with their brash behavior," said Hill editor Al Eisele, a longtime Congress watcher and former aide to Vice President Walter Mondale.

Becoming a player

Franken staffers, who keep a rescue dog named Blaine in the office, say the record of Franken's first 12 months in office speaks for itself: Out of 23 legislative initiatives, five have become law. Eight involved one or more Republican co-sponsors, including a veterans' service dog program introduced with Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia.

The one that got the most attention was a measure aimed at mandatory arbitration contracts in employment, a provision inspired by the Jamie Leigh Jones rape case. It passed with bipartisan support -- and stirred the bad feelings of opponents who saw themselves thrashed on "The Daily Show" as apologists for rape.

Another Franken victory, though significantly weakened in its final form, addresses conflicts of interest among Wall Street rating agencies, a problem many observers saw as being at the root of the 2008 financial collapse.

"The fact is, in an astonishingly short period of time he figured out how to operate as a player in the Senate," said American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein, a Minnesota native who also is a close friend and adviser to Franken. "The stereotype of him as an angry, shallow celebrity who could never make it in this world except as a bomb-thrower just simply doesn't in any way fit reality."

No matter what Franken's legislative record is, he is unlikely to outrun his polarizing celebrity shadow, which friends and foes alike have used in the all-important chase for political cash.

On that score, Franken was awarded one of the highest forms of political respect last week when he was asked to lend his name to help the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reach its midyear fundraising goals.

In Washington, that's serious business.

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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