WASHINGTON - So far, the list of Al Franken's bills in the U.S. Senate reads more like the stuff of everyday life than legislative legend.

There are measures on school lunches, household products, service dogs for wounded vets. On his 100th day in office last week, he helped unveil a bill to extend country-of-origin labeling regulations to dairy products.

"A lot of these are common-sense things," Franken said while sitting beneath a photo of his late friend and mentor, Sen. Paul Wellstone. "A lot of these are about improving people's lives. That's what Paul said politics is all about."

It's becoming clear that, to Franken -- who made his entrance after the partisan rumpus of a 312-vote recount victory -- discretion is the better part of valor as he feels his way into the complex web of relationships that make up everyday life in the Senate.

He has spent more time building bridges than scoring points. The favor has been returned by GOP colleagues in the Senate, where collegiality is the stratagem of choice.

Not that there haven't been Wellstonian sparks. Franken's 100th day last Wednesday coincided with a "Daily Show" segment by humorist Jon Stewart taking the Minnesota Democrat's side in a recent floor battle with Republicans. The dust-up, which Franken won, came over a narrowly drawn measure to strengthen legal rights of military contract workers sexually assaulted on the job.

Generally, though, Franken has proven adept at keeping his head down and avoiding the political paparazzi waiting for him to do something funny or outrageous. Those who expected the caricature from GOP election season attack ads of a fire-breathing partisan have been silenced -- or they're keeping their powder dry until the next election.

To anyone who might be surprised, Washington observers say they've seen this movie before. Franken's super-serious persona comes straight out of the Hillary Clinton script on how to play down celebrity in the Senate: Work hard, move cautiously, pick your shots.

"There's very much a parallel with Clinton, who was seen as Lady Macbeth," said Washington political analyst Norman Ornstein, a Franken friend and adviser from his days in Minnesota.

The result is that Franken has spent his early days in office relatively free from the Republicans' leave-no-flub-unexamined treatment he got before he was sworn into office.

"He hasn't provoked them, so that certainly helps," said Mitch Pearlstein, founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank in the Twin Cities.

'Artful, tough questions'

Franken, an actor and author, has gone three months in the Senate without an appearance on a national TV news show. "I've done 'the Daily Show.' I've done Letterman. For me, this is a new job," he said.

He generally turns down interview requests from national publications. An aide often accompanies him off the Senate floor to fend off the press of cameramen and reporters.

Politically, he's sprung few surprises. He's championed standard liberal causes such as expanded unemployment benefits, college loans, and a bill called the Household Product Labeling Act, which would tell parents if products they use could be harmful to their kids.

Cutting a little closer to the political edge, Franken took to the Senate floor this month to manage debate on his amendment ensuring that military contractors can't force victims of sexual assault into arbitration, as opposed to suing.

The amendment -- named for former KBR/Halliburton worker and rape victim Jamie Leigh Jones -- passed 68-30, with the support of all the women in the Senate, including more than a half-dozen Republicans.

Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions called it "a political attack against Halliburton."

The next day Franken confronted Mark de Bernardo, executive director of the Council for Employment Law Equity, who was testifying in favor of arbitration. A testy exchange over statistics ended with Franken appearing to cut off de Bernardo mid-sentence.

To Ornstein, the episode signified Franken's growing comfort level. "I saw it as artful, tough questions that certainly took the guy aback," he said.

Other Franken partisans, weary of the GOP's "Angry Al" attack ads in the 2008 Senate race, downplayed the episode, just as they had an earlier encounter between Franken and oil magnate T. Boone Pickens.

At a Capitol luncheon, Pickens introduced himself to Franken, who immediately confronted the billionaire about his role as a financier of the Swift Boat attack ads against Democratic Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. But the encounter ended with an exchange of business cards.

'Unflamboyant' Al

In the days since his swearing-in on July 7, Franken's press clips have largely shed the "funnyman gets serious" wordplay featured repeatedly during the protracted recount.

His comedic past still can come back to haunt him, as it did in an Oct. 9 story in The Hill newspaper recounting Franken's old jokes at the expense of his new Republican colleagues. Mostly, his swipes have been brushed off by Republicans, including Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, whom Franken once referred to as the only Republican he'd consider bedding down. "He's a comedian, so it's all in jest," Snowe told The Hill.

Another past target, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., called Franken "a very friendly and very serious senator." Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, said, "He and I are friends and colleagues and we work well together."

By all accounts, Franken's early discipline has paid off, avoiding Wellstone's early clashes with Republicans. "I've been struck by how unflamboyant he's been," Pearlstein said.

Franken sent an unmistakable message with his first piece of legislation: the Service Dogs for Veterans Act, establishing a pilot program to pair 200 wounded veterans with service dogs from nonprofit agencies.

Filed after his second week on the job, the bill was noted less for its utterly nonpartisan nature than for its chief co-sponsor: Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson, rated one of the most conservative members of the Senate.

It was an auspicious start for the rookie senator. The bill passed in a matter of 48 hours.

Franken also sought out a Republican partner -- Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski -- for a recent initiative, the Expanded School Meals Act, which Franken says would help more than 50,000 Minnesota kids afford reduced-price lunches.

Strong stand on health care

He has burnished his liberal credentials most forcefully in the health care debate, staking out a clear position in favor of a government-run insurance plan known as a public option.

Back home in Minnesota, Franken is maintaining a head-down, wonky style.

On an unseasonably snowy day last week, he and University of Minnesota President Bob Bruinicks talked about federal proposals to change student loan and aid programs. Franken cracked a few tepid weather jokes, but quickly got down to business: his desire to end the Federal Family Education Loan program. He said it puts banks between student and their loans, letting banks profit while costing the loan program $87 million.

"This all comes down to who should benefit from student aid. I think it should be the students," he said. His presentation was workmanlike.

Bigger things could be on the horizon, including a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan in December. But for now, Franken says his focus is on the minutiae of everyday legislation.

"I'm really interested in doing the work," he said. "That's why I ran."

Staff writer Eric Roper contributed to this report. kdiaz@startribune.com • 202-408-2753 rachel.stassen-berger@startribune.com 651-292-0164