Al Franken takes his job very seriously

Being the 60th Democratic Senate vote is no joke. But can Franken guarantee Sotomayor vote or healthcare reform?

By Mike Madden
Published July 7, 2009 10:16AM (EDT)
Minnesota Senator Al Franken
Minnesota Senator Al Franken

Just a few minutes into Sen.-elect Al Franken's first public appearance inside the Beltway since he finally won the longest-running contest of the 2008 election, it was already clear that anyone hoping for six years of laughter out of the comedian-turned-junior senator from Minnesota would be disappointed.

"Thank you, Mr. Leader," Franken said to Harry Reid on Monday afternoon, once the Senate Democratic boss had introduced him at a brief press conference in a second-floor Capitol hallway. "I want to thank the leader for all your support during and after the campaign, and I look forward to working under your leadership."

He then intoned a few minutes' worth of talking points about what Minnesotans could expect him to get to work on once he's sworn in on Tuesday -- healthcare reform, jobs, clean energy. As a political debut, it was safe and by the books. As stand-up comedy, it wasn't killer material; plenty of lawmakers are a lot funnier on a regular basis, even if it's not always intentional.

Which shouldn't come as a surprise, of course. Franken spent most of last year running a campaign that put him farther and farther away from the less politically safe line items on his résumé with each passing day. He's been cautious, even reserved, since the Minnesota Supreme Court stuck a fork in Republican Norm Coleman's hopes of dragging out the process of certifying Franken's victory any longer than the eight months it had already been delayed. By tomorrow, he'll be ready to take seats on committees on health, education, labor and pension, aging, Indian affairs and judiciary -- where he'll join the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, in a sort of reprise of an old "Saturday Night Live" skit (in which he played the late Illinois Sen. Paul Simon chatting up Clarence Thomas about hot women in D.C.).

But no matter how much Franken tries to play the buttoned-up Midwesterner, his arrival in Washington was a media event. It wasn't just about Minnesotans anxious to have two senators to bother about constituent service. There were a dozen TV cameras set up in the hallway to catch the Reid and Franken show, even if only conservative blogger Michelle Malkin thought it was particularly amusing to see Franken as a senator.

The attention wasn't all because of Franken's celebrity factor. Combined with the rest of the 2008 election results, and with Sen. Arlen Specter's opportunistic party flip, Franken finally gives Democrats 60 votes in the Senate -- enough, if Reid can hold the party together, to pass legislation even if Republicans try to use procedural measures to block Democratic priorities. (Senate rules make it easy to delay or stop bills if 40 or more members want to object.)

"Now, the Democrats have the seat," Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said last week. "They have 60 seats in the Senate. And, you know, I can say without hesitation that this government is totally theirs now. And everything that comes out of it and everything that results from it is on their plate."

Even some Democrats seemed to be raising the stakes now that Franken is preparing to be sworn in. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, one of the party's leaders, told the Huffington Post over the weekend that the additional vote should make it easier to pass healthcare reform. You can probably expect similar optimism for any number of Democratic priorities.

That may be pushing it a bit. The members who caucus with the Democrats in the Senate run the gamut from Vermont's Bernie Sanders -- an independent who used to be a socialist -- to Nebraska's Ben Nelson, whom National Journal rated less liberal than three Republicans in its 2007 rankings. Not to mention Joe Lieberman, who came close to becoming the first person in history to be nominated for vice-president by both major political parties. It also includes senators like Evan Bayh of Indiana, who are hoping to win reelection next year from purple states, and who have already tried to push Obama to the center on spending issues.

It also must be said that so far, at least, Reid doesn't spend much time cracking the whip to discipline members who stray from the Democratic position, and it's not likely he'll suddenly turn into the second coming of arm-twisting Lyndon Johnson. Besides, with Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd away from the Capitol for medical reasons, the Democrats still don't have 60 votes on a day-to-day basis, even if every member of the party fell in line.

"It will help some with procedure, but it's not the game changer liberals hope it will be or that Republicans would like to convince you it will be," one senior Senate Democratic aide told Salon. "We still have two senators out, we still have moderates and people up for reelection. Each issue we deal with will be different."

Franken stuck to that message Monday. "A lot has been made of this number 60," he said. "The number I'm focused on is the number 2. I see myself as the second senator from the state of Minnesota." Reid made sure to play down the math, as well. "Much has been made of the expectations of Al Franken joining the Senate," he said. "Here are my expectations. He, of course, is going to work hard for the people of Minnesota."

And he also aimed a warning shot at the GOP. "Moving America forward will still require the cooperation of my Senate colleagues, who are Republicans," Reid said. "The last eight years have shown us the American people want us to work together. Democrats aren't looking to Sen. Franken's election as an opportunity to ram legislation through this body. In turn, Senate Republicans must understand that Sen.-elect Franken's election does not abdicate them from the responsibilities to govern."

That rhetoric is both a recognition of the reality in the Senate -- that Franken makes it only marginally easier to push President Obama's agenda through -- and an early attempt at political cover in case things still don't move quickly. But no matter what Reid wants voters to think, blaming Republicans may not be as simple Tuesday as it was on Monday. The paradox of Franken's arrival is that while it may not really give much new power to the Democrats, it's almost certain to add to people's expectations for how the party will wield it. Still, despite his caucus' many complications, Reid is going to be expected to get results for Obama and the Democratic agenda, given his status as a leader with 60 nominal votes. Chuck Schumer's statements show that not all Democrats are taking Reid's cautious approach.

So don't be surprised if Harry Reid starts adding a new routine to his mornings -- one where he looks in the mirror and says, quoting one of Franken's characters, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." Thanks to his new colleague, he may need the daily dose of self-affirmation more than ever. 

Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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