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Henry C. Jackson, Associated Press Writer, Published August 02 2009

Franken puts his focus on policy, not celebrity

WASHINGTON – Al Franken has immersed himself in the health care debate. He’s had a chance to question Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. He’s signed on as a co-sponsor of a half-dozen bills.

Weeks into his late-starting Senate career, the former comedian and self-professed policy lover is focusing on a few issues and the daily details of his new profession. Forget the old celebrity stuff.

There was nothing flashy about the Minnesota Democrat’s first victory. The Service Dog Veterans Act, which Franken introduced with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., will set up a pilot program with the Department of Veterans Affairs to pair service dogs with wounded veterans.

“He sought me out, and I was happy to work with him,” Isakson said. “He’d done his homework. He was very informed. It was obvious he was trying to hit the ground running.”

Isakson said he came away impressed.

“All of us know in the Senate your reputation is the sum of all the days you serve, not just one event, but he appears to be trying very hard.”

Franken’s swearing-in July 7 marked the end of an eight-month political and legal struggle since the November race against GOP incumbent Norm Coleman. After a protracted recount, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of the former “Saturday Night Live” performer, giving Senate Democrats enough votes to thwart possible Republican filibusters.

He is serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, throwing him right into the middle of the Sotomayor nomination and the health care overhaul.

During the Sotomayor hearings, Franken said he was able to get Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the committee’s top Republican, to acknowledge there are conservative “activist judges” as well as liberal ones.

“I thought that was a victory,” Franken said in an interview. “Every conservative would say I want someone who’s not a judicial activist and won’t make law from the bench, but that’s exactly what Justice Thomas is doing. So I was proud of that.”

Democrats have appreciated Franken’s ability to get up to speed quickly on the issues.

“He really understands the sort of workings of government and how policy is developed and the effect it has,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. “This is not some passing fancy of his. This is something he’s been intellectualizing on and studying for many, many years.”

Harkin said Franken has been a “quick study” on health care and was doing what he could to build consensus.

While Franken generally has tried to keep a low profile, he has picked his spot.

At a lunch with Democrats on Thursday, Franken had what spokeswoman Jess McIntosh described as “a lively discussion” with T. Boone Pickens, the energy entrepreneur and key backer of the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads that targeted Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee.

If you listen to Franken, there’s plenty of other things he can be doing besides talking.

“I’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. “I’ve got to get up to speed very, very quickly, so I’m focused on that.”