WASHINGTON — When Al Franken was sworn in six months ago today, the question on many minds was what persona the author, former comedian and radio talk show host would adopt as a U.S. senator.
Would he be the quipster from “Saturday Night Live,” or would he be a take-no-prisoners liberal from “Air America?”
“He has shown both sides, but it’s clear he’s prioritizing being a serious senator,” said Kathryn Pearson, an assistant professor of politics at the University of Minnesota.
That didn’t stop Franken from having some fun with Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor during her confirmation hearing shortly after he joined the Senate. He asked Sotomayor, who later won confirmation, if she could recall the television episode in which defense lawyer Perry Mason lost a case.
When Sotomayor threw up her hands, Franken quipped, “Didn’t the White House prepare you for that?” He later acknowledged he didn’t know, either.
But for the most part, the junior senator from Minnesota has shown himself to be a serious-minded legislator with a willingness to reach across the political aisle.
But he’s also shown a confrontational streak in recent weeks, marked by sharp exchanges with Republican colleagues.
Franken’s critics cite his refusal to allow Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., extra time to speak on the Senate floor during the health care reform debate in December as an example of partisanship they expected to see.
Such requests usually are granted as a matter of courtesy, but Franken was obeying orders from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to stick to a 10-minute limit. He was not the only senator acting as presiding officer that day to deny a colleague more time to speak.
Still, Minnesota GOP Chairman Tony Sutton said Franken exhibited a brusqueness that belies the character of Minnesota politics embodied by former Sen. Paul Wellstone.
“Wellstone had a Minnesota attitude and didn’t embarrass the state as Al Franken has done,” Sutton said. “He’s one of these liberals who really have axes to grind, which isn’t the Minnesota way.”
“Disappointed but not surprised,” was Sutton’s short answer when asked to assess Franken’s performance so far. “The only upside is he’ll probably be a one-term senator.”
Franken’s supporters say his critics are exaggerating the senator’s actions.
“Everyone knows he’s passionate in his feelings, but it’s not being done for any dramatic or political effect,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who recruited Franken to run. He said he is pleased with Franken’s growth as a senator.
“He’s blossomed,” Schumer said. “He’s serious, conscientious; he cares. He has strong views on some issues, but he’s willing to listen to the other side.”
In his Dec. 23 floor speech on health care reform, Franken acknowledged getting caught up in the tension of the emotional debate, and showed his humorous side. The Senate passed the bill the next day with no Republican voting for it.
“Unfortunately, it’s been a bit rancorous, and I think that’s too bad,” Franken said about the debate. “There have been accusations flying back and forth. Umbrage has been taken. This place has become an umbrage factory. I even took umbrage once and I feel bad about that.”
Those remarks came a week after Franken sparred with Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate’s fourth-ranking Republican, over Thune’s depiction of the health care reform bill. Franken also reportedly had a sharp exchange in early December with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., over Corker’s opposition to a measure Franken authored to give employees of defense contractors the right to sue their companies if they are raped or sexually assaulted on the job.
The measure was passed as an amendment to the Defense Department spending bill. It is one of two pieces of legislation Franken has pushed through since his July 7 swearing in. The other was a bill co-authored with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., to provide service dogs to wounded veterans.
The rape victims measure rankled some of Franken’s Republican colleagues because liberal groups used it to portray those Republicans who voted against it as unsympathetic to rape victims.
During a recent interview, Franken declined to address the fallout. But he pointed out that 10 Republicans voted for the measure, which passed 68-30.
“I’m proud of that amendment,” he said. “It really was to hold these companies accountable and make sure that people who are subject to outrageous things don’t have these mandatory agreements that are written into their contracts and limit their right to go to court.”
Of the 12 bills Franken has introduced, six have Republican co-sponsors, a point he and his supporters make to deflect accusations that he has been too partisan.
Franken said that while he has reached a comfort level in being a senator, he’s still trying to find his niche. He joined the body late after an extended recount in his race against incumbent Republican Norm Coleman.
“I’m still behind on procedural matters,” he said. “I still find myself sometimes saying, ‘What are we doing here?’ And then there’s sort of finding my place and where I can do the most good. There are places where seniority does matter, and there places where ideas matter.”
Franken seemed to find his way during the health care reform debate, as he teamed with fellow Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar to offer several amendments. One Franken amendment, which became part of the bill the Senate approved Dec. 24, would require insurance companies to apply 85 percent of premiums to actual health care costs.
It’s not clear if the amendment will survive as lawmakers work to merge the health care reform bills passed by the House and Senate.
As for constituent work, Franken has answered more than 60,000 letters on more than 35 issues, according to his staff. He’s visited 72 of the state’s 87 counties and has hosted 260 constituents at his weekly breakfasts on Wednesdays.
The University of Minnesota’s Pearson said she has been impressed by Franken’s legislative activity and how serious he has been. She said his poll numbers in Minnesota are going up as he has gained credibility as a senator.