By Alexander Bolton - 12/23/09 11:00 AM EST
Al Franken, the Democrat from Minnesota who won election to the Senate
after a successful career as a comic and author, has begun to show the
sharp-tongued side of his personality by ripping into GOP staffers behind the scenes.
Franken has worked diligently to keep a low public profile in Congress while focusing on wonky policy debates. But he has been unable to completely repress the fiery passion that made him a hero of the Democratic Party’s liberal base.
But he has also pummeled Republican senators and their aides, showing a glimpse of the pugilistic style of his best-seller, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.
Franken has surprised some of his colleagues behind the scenes by getting into heated tangles with GOP staffers.
One such exchange took place in Franken’s office during a recent meeting with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and his aides.
Franken invited Corker to his office to discuss an op-ed that Corker penned in a Tennessee newspaper opposing an amendment Franken offered to a defense bill. The measure gave the employees of defense contractors who suffer rape or sexual assault at the workplace the right to sue in court.
The meeting quickly deteriorated when Franken began berating one of Corker’s aides, according to GOP aides familiar with the incident. Franken’s sally was so harsh that Corker told Franken to lay off his aide and direct the comments at him instead.
Franken’s tough approach came as a surprise because Corker scheduled the meeting to mend fences after Franken confronted him about the op-ed during an angry exchange on the Senate floor.
Another GOP staffer, an aide to a Senate Republican leader, found herself at the sharp end of Franken’s wit at a recent reception in the Senate’s Mansfield Room. The tongue-lashing took place at an event to celebrate the swearing-in of GOP Sen. George LeMieux (Fla.).
After the conversation began ordinarily, Franken started to grill the aide about what he sees as the failings of the GOP. Franken demanded to know why it had become the "Party of No" and had exaggerated facts in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, according to another GOP leadership aide.
A spokeswoman for Franken declined to comment on either exchange.
The aide emphasized Franken's accomplishments during his short time in the Senate.
"Sen. Franken is always looking for ways to work with his colleagues to make people's lives better and get things done for Minnesota," said spokeswoman Casey Aden-Wansbury.
"He has built good working relationships with colleagues on both sides of the aisle — half the bills he has introduced have Republican co-sponsors. Sen. Franken is pleased that two of his bills have already been signed into law — and that both passed with bipartisan support," she said.
The incidents with GOP staff have reminded some Senate observers of a mocking interaction Franken had with a conservative student, Peter Fritz, at Carleton College during his Senate campaign. After learning of Fritz’s political orientation, Franken pressed him to defend Reaganomics and mimicked his speech patterns, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Aden-Wansbury vigorously denied that Franken made fun of Fritz and claimed that element of the report was inaccurate.
“There is a war within Al Franken,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. “The Al Franken head tells him to steer away from the limelight and build his reputation. Then there is his heart, which is quite fiery."
Jacobs said Franken must be careful not to engage in too many political brawls, or it could “reinforce for independent voters what they feared about him, that he’s a hot-headed partisan.”
Franken has not just confronted GOP aides at private meetings; he has also mixed it up with Republican colleagues in public on the Senate floor.
In addition to chewing out Corker over the op-ed, earlier this month Franken clashed loudly with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) on the Senate floor. The dust-up was spurred by Thune’s claim that Democratic healthcare legislation would impose new taxes immediately but fail to implement benefits for several years.
Franken derided Thune’s floor presentation and implied that he had fabricated some of his facts, a more personal confrontation than usual in the clubby Senate. An irate Thune walked off the Senate floor after Franken revealed a private conversation they had on the topic.
“I asked if he mentioned any of the benefits that do kick in [immediately] and he said, ‘Uh no,’ ” Franken said in front of C-SPAN television cameras.
“We are entitled to our own opinions; we’re not entitled to our own facts,” Franken said, raising his voice. “Benefits kick in right away, and if you’re going to hold up a chart that says when taxes kick in and when benefits kick in … you better include the benefits that do kick in right away.”
Franken later apologized to Thune.
And last week, Franken cut off Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) during his speech on the Senate floor. Lieberman, who has drawn the ire of liberals over his opposition to
the public health insurance option, asked for an additional moment to
finish remarks about amendments he planned to offer, but Franken, who was presiding over the Senate, refused to grant the routine request.
"In my capacity as the senator from Minnesota, I object," Franken said.
"Really?" replied Lieberman.
A spokeswoman for Franken said that the senator was just trying to move along with the legislation, but at a press conference late last week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) expressed disgust with Franken, saying that Lieberman's request for more time to extend his remarks was "objected to by the newest member of the United States Senate in a most brusque way ... We've got to stop this kind of behavior. I have never seen anything like that and I hope that I don't see it again."
An aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) confirmed to reporters the leader asked colleagues presiding over the chamber to strictly enforce a 10-minute speaking rule.
And Democrats note that despite his criticism, McCain did the same thing to a colleague in 2002 when he objected to former Sen. Mark Dayton’s (D-Minn.) request for an additional 30 seconds of floor time during the Iraq War debate.
These incidents have pulled Franken away from his stated goal of modeling his early career in the Senate on former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who made a point of proving herself as a “workhorse,” in Senate parlance, and who teamed up often with Republicans.
He has stayed off national cable shows such as "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" and "The Rachel Maddow Show" to avoid appearing as a celebrity liberal spokesman instead of a hard-working senator from Minnesota.
Franken stayed away from the popular liberal blog Daily Kos until this past weekend, when he submitted a measured defense of his decision to vote for Senate healthcare reform legislation.
Franken, who has shared a lot of his time with Minnesota media outlets, has kept the national press at arm’s length. He participated in his first national conference call over the weekend. The call with colleagues did not, however, push political hot buttons. Instead, it focused on consumer protections in the healthcare bill.
And he has wooed a significant number of Republican colleagues to cooperate on legislative initiatives.
For example, he introduced the Service Dogs for Veterans Act with Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.); a diabetes prevention amendment with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.); a bill to assist the victims of sexual assault with Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah); and the Compassionate Care for Servicewomen Act with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).
But even while Franken has tried to focus on sober policy issues, he has at times become embroiled in heated political debates inadvertently, his defenders say.
This happened with the so-called “anti-rape” amendment Franken offered to a defense bill. The measure barred the government from doing business with contractors that required employees to settle rape and sexual assault charges through arbitration instead of the courts.
The amendment was popular enough to attract 68 votes in the Senate, but it quickly became a political football when liberals used it to attack 30 Republican lawmakers who opposed it.
Liberal comic Jon Stewart slammed Republican opponents on his talk show, and other critics set up a fake website, RepublicansForRape.org, something that did not endear Franken to some of his conservative colleagues.
“It’s partly because Franken’s on a 24/7 watch,” said Jacobs of the University of Minnesota. “Even when he’s not intending to go public, he’s finding himself in the media spotlight.”
This story was updated at 12:59 p.m.