Franken emerges as liberal force in hearings

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Sen. Al Franken stole the spotlight at the confirmation hearings for President Trump’s Cabinet picks, giving a glimpse into how he plans to hold the new administration accountable. 

The progressive Minnesota Democrat was the breakout star during a packed week of hearings. Franken’s series of high-profile clashes indicated he could be an emerging leader within a party in turmoil.

Franken, who was elected in 2008, has largely kept his head down in the upper chamber, focusing on legislative duties and representing his constituents.

{mosads}While he shies away from hallway interviews with reporters from national outlets, he’s starting to appear on the Sunday news shows as he bolsters his national profile. Becoming one of Trump’s leading antagonists could help him score a future leadership role — and possibly stoke rumors about ambitions for higher office.

“It’s very clear now that he is trying to raise his profile and position himself as a leading critic of Donald Trump,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who was active in Franken’s recount in 2008.

“After watching him skillfully interrogate some of the Trump nominees in recent days, he’s clearly angling to mix it up much more so than he has in the past.”

Franken used his time on the dais to grill Trump’s Cabinet-level picks at several hearings on topics ranging from healthcare to immigration. Some of his fiery exchanges produced memorable moments that captivated social media and grabbed national headlines.

The senator’s sharp questioning was first on display at the hearing for Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general nominee, last Tuesday. Franken took the Alabama Republican to task over Trump’s claim that millions of people cast fraudulent votes for Hillary Clinton, and questioned whether Sessions had inflated the number of desegregation cases he prosecuted.

“Our country needs an attorney general who doesn’t overstate his involvement,” Franken said, agitating Sessions.

“If I’m in error, I apologize to you, but I don’t think I was,” Sessions responded.

Franken also delivered a five-minute monologue condemning Trump’s rhetoric, arguing that the new president made scapegoating immigrants, refugees and minorities an integral part of his campaign. Franken quoted Sessions saying that Trump’s temporary ban on Muslims entering the country is “appropriate to discuss.”

A week later, Franken had a standout moment at the hearing for Trump’s Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos.

The Minnesota Democrat asked DeVos about where she stands on the fierce debate about whether students’ test scores should be measured by proficiency or growth.

DeVos delivered a shaky response and hesitated several times when answering.

“I think if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery so each student is measured according to the advancement they’re making in each subject area,” DeVos said. 

Franken cut in to correct her.

“It surprises me you don’t know this issue and, Mr. Chairman, I think this is a good reason for us to have more questions,” he said.

The following day, Franken questioned Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who has been tapped to lead the Health Department.

Franken pressed Price on the idea of repealing Medicaid expansion in ObamaCare. Price will likely play an integral role in the law’s repeal, which is high on Republicans’ wish lists.

Franken’s line of questioning provides a window into the types of battles he might engage in with Trump and Republicans. And his seat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will put him in the crosshairs of major policy debates, including the battle over repealing and replacing ObamaCare.

“His perch on the HELP committee is going to allow him be an aggressive opponent of many of the Republicans’ key social policy reforms,” Manley said.

Franken’s questioning also generated some more light-hearted moments during the week of hearings and showed the senator’s comedic roots as a former “Saturday Night Live” star.

At former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s hearing to be Energy secretary, Perry referred to an earlier meeting with Franken by saying that he “hope[s] you are as fun on the dais as you were on your couch.”

The hearing room erupted in laughter, and Franken asked Perry to rephrase. “Please. Please. Oh my lord,” Franken said. 

Once the laughter subsided, Franken pressed Trump’s Energy secretary nominee about his opinion on climate change. 

“Given that his voice can be particularly sharp, particularly funny at times, and particularly effective, I see him being among the leading voices of the Democratic opposition to Trump opposition and Republicans in Congress,” said Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.

Other Senate Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) have also been outspoken critics during the confirmation hearings and are seen as top 2020 presidential prospects. Booker testified against Sessions, breaking precedent to criticize one of his own Senate colleagues. 

Warren also had several fierce moments on the dais, torching DeVos over her higher education credentials and challenging Price over whether there will be cuts to Medicare or Medicaid.

Franken’s colleague Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has also been floated as a potential 2020 contender. Still, she downplayed any presidential aspirations. Klobuchar, who has a Senate leadership post, recently ruled out a gubernatorial run and will instead face reelection in 2018.

“I’m not thinking about that at all,” Klobuchar recently told The Hill

Franken’s elevated role could add his name into the rumor mill as Democrats look for new leaders to mend a fractured party and challenge Trump in 2020. He hasn’t indicated any interest in seeking higher office, but a super PAC was created trying to draft him to run for 2020.

Norman Ornstein, a friend of Franken’s and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, downplayed the possibility of the Minnesota Democrat emerging as a presidential contender.

“This is not a guy who’s seeking anything like that,” he said. “This is not what he’s aiming for.”

But Ornstein said he could see Franken joining Senate leadership or taking a role rebuilding the Democratic Party.

“He’s going to end up being seen as a real leader in the party,” Ornstein said. 

Tags Al Franken Amy Klobuchar Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Harry Reid Hillary Clinton Jeff Sessions
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