WASHINGTON – Sen. Al Franken was annoyed at Uber, the ride-share company competing with taxis. He politely asked last year for the company’s privacy policies, concerned that Uber was abusing customer information.
The company’s terse response caused Franken, who had just won re-election, to fire off another letter, again asking Uber to be more transparent.
In the old days, before Franken’s party lost control of the U.S. Senate, Franken could have called a hearing, put the Uber CEO under oath, and grilled him in front of the media.
Now, under the Republicans, Franken’s power is largely limited to writing letters and introducing legislation that has less chance of passing than it did three months ago.
“I think we’re all adjusting to it on both sides, and we’re all kind of waiting,” Franken said. “There’s going to be areas where certain things are a little harder now.”
It’s a new world for both of Minnesota’s Democratic senators, who say they are slowly adjusting to a life in which they aren’t in charge, don’t run the committees, can’t call hearings and have little control over what gets voted on.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, though appointed to a leadership role, joked that adjusting to life in the minority has had some funny moments.
She keeps forgetting members on her side are not committee chairs anymore, and she has accidentally walked into the wrong lunch room — yes, at the Capitol Republicans and Democrats have weekly lunches in separate rooms.
“You kind of forget because you’re in a new era,” she said.
Because Republicans occupy 54 seats and 60 votes are generally needed to get measures passed, Klobuchar is hopeful Republicans will be willing to work across the aisle, if only to show voters they can get things done.
In the new Congress, Klobuchar has sought both less-controversial common ground with Republicans as well as taking the lead on lifting the Cuban trade embargo. She has introduced bipartisan legislation to combat drug addiction, proposed action to preserve the monarch butterfly and co-sponsored a bill to boost Minnesota’s craft breweries.
Klobuchar insists the less controversial work together can help ease the way to tackling thornier, more politically complex issues such as Cuba, immigration reform or funding infrastructure projects.
Ending the Cuban trade embargo would greatly benefit Minnesota, she says, by allowing the state’s farmers to double what they already export in food. Minnesota currently ships $20 million of food a year to the island of 11 million people.
With no embargo, Klobuchar predicts that total could soar above $40 million and also include medical devices, paper products and other Minnesota-made commodities.
Still, Klobuchar’s efforts will face stiff resistance from the two leading opponents of killing the 50-year-old embargo, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who hold prime spots on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
This year will be a critical test for Congress’ functionality and productivity. By year’s end, Iowa caucuses will be looming and there will be little political willpower to advance serious legislation because so much energy will be vacuumed into the 2016 presidential race.
Asked whether a Republican majority in both chambers will hurt the DFL cause in Minnesota, Chair Ken Martin demurred.
“I would say having Republicans in power gives us the opportunity to highlight what they’re for or what ideas they believe in,” he said.
On Minnesota’s senators, he said, “They will be willing to compromise but not willing to cave either.”
On his side of the chamber, Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen was heartened the Senate fell into Republican hands because he said he just wants “to get stuff done.”
He mentioned trade and tax reform as top priorities, though said he disagreed with proposed tax increases in Obama’s budget.
“Are there pieces that have strong bipartisan support in Congress?” he said. “I think if some of those pieces start to move, then we could build a foundation for a larger package.”
In early February, Franken walked into a Judiciary Committee hearing where Republicans were trying to find absent members to meet a quorum so they could advance legislation about open records reform and restitution for child pornography victims.
“You know, you guys are in the majority,” he said, taking a seat. “Goodness.”
A few members chuckled.
“I want to say something about this,” Franken said, leaning into the microphone, with a deadpan unsmiling face.
“When we were in the majority, we had the responsibility to provide a quorum, and I thought you guys, your side, didn’t show up because you just resented being in the minority. But now I know … again it’s just sheer laziness.”
The new Judiciary Committee chair Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley didn’t look up.
“You did a very good job, I have to say,” he retorted. “You did show up.”