Franken making his mark in the Senate

Al Franken vowed on the campaign trail to end the war in Iraq, reform the nation’s healthcare system and bring down college tuition costs.

As a senator, the former “Saturday Night Live” star has delivered only one speech on the floor, introduced low-profile legislation and declined many media interview requests.

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It is not unusual for a freshman senator to adopt a deferential approach in a chamber that is high on decorum and seniority. But the former entertainer has gone out of his way to deflect attention away from himself.

A review of Franken’s Senate website shows only a biography, contact information and links to other congressional sites. There is no button for press releases. And unlike many lawmakers, Franken doesn’t Tweet.

Franken does talk to media outlets in Minnesota. But otherwise — on a daily basis — the 58-year-old lawmaker travels with a press aide who cuts off all press queries by saying, “No questions, no questions.” Franken declined The Hill’s request for an interview.

After being declared the winner over Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), one of Franken’s first moves was to hire Drew Littman, a veteran of Capitol Hill, as his chief of staff. Littman has assisted more than a handful of Democrats over the past decade in making the transition from senators-elect to members of the upper chamber.

Franken has thus far been a reliable vote for Democratic leadership. And of the 72 bills he has formally endorsed, only four were introduced by Republicans.

Franken has crafted few pieces of legislation. His Service Dogs for Veterans Act, which seeks to pair service dogs with veterans who need them, was successfully attached to the defense appropriations bill this summer. Several Republicans co-sponsored Franken’s bill, including Sens. John Ensign (Nev.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.).

“It was like he waited purposely, and then reeled it out,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) of Franken’s service dogs bill. “He came and told me, ‘I know this is small, but I’ve got this little issue that will have a major impact.’ I had just done a similar project as mayor, so I knew about it. But it was smart. It was a good, simple bill, with a minimal cost. It was good politics for his first bill.”

In his bid for the upper chamber, Franken refrained from making jokes, trying to convince voters he was a serious candidate. Yet Franken can only suppress humor so much. During a recent caucus lunch with other Democratic senators, Franken delivered a punch line — and it hit its mark.

“Al said we should do away with the seniority system,” said a Democratic senator who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Which was pretty funny, considering how low down he is in seniority.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) deadpan response, according to others in the room: “Al, you’re not funny anymore. You’ve joined the Senate.”

Like all freshmen, Franken has done his share of presiding over the Senate. The only time he has delivered a speech on the floor occurred in August in support of then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

Before praising her, Franken showed some Senate etiquette: “Before I discuss the nomination of Judge Sotomayor, I wish to take a moment to thank all of my colleagues here in the Senate for their very warm welcome and hospitality. I joined this body a little less than a month ago, but I have been humbled by this institution, by the work that goes on here and, most importantly, by my colleagues.”

Democrats say Franken is following the right model, being mindful of the path through the Senate. It is similar to that which Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) trod after she was elected in 2000.

Minnesota is home to some 300 medical device firms, including industry giant Medtronic Inc., St. Jude Medical Inc., two major divisions of Boston Scientific Corp. and hundreds of smaller firms. About 50,000 Minnesotans work in the industry.

Senators say Franken has spoken out on behalf of those industries, making a particular appeal during a recent caucus lunch for healthcare reform by noting the effect on Minnesota and emphasizing the point in private.

“He made the point that we need to be doing something,” said one Democrat. “He has a way of looking at the issues, very much in-depth, that people wouldn’t understand.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) is one of several Democrats who has been impressed with Franken’s diligence.

“I see people making a lot of jokes with him,” she said. “But I don’t see him making jokes with us.”