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Published July 07 2010

He's no joke: Franken marks anniversary in Senate with confidence

WASHINGTON - One year ago, watchful eyes – some skeptically – were on Al Franken as he made the transition from being a former “Saturday Night Live” staple to becoming Minnesota’s freshman U.S. senator.

Many, from national political pundits to average Minnesotans, wondered what to make of the comedian-turned-lawmaker and how the Democrat might approach his role among the powerful elite in the U.S. Congress.

But such doubts have dissipated as Franken demonstrates a focused approach to lawmaking in a way that has national media, like Newsweek, now calling him “a force to be reckoned with in Washington.”

Arriving in the Senate during a tumultuous year that included two Supreme Court confirmations and congressional overhauls of health care and financial regulation, the formerly outspoken funnyman has kept a low profile and, instead, put an emphasis on crafting legislation.

“I want to get things done. I want to be effective,” Franken said last week during an interview with The Forum in his Capitol Hill office. “I’m in this for the long game.”

The political newcomer said he has purposely declined invitations to appear on Sunday-morning talk shows and late-night programs – defying an expectation that Franken might seek to bask in Washington’s limelight.

“I really wanted to send a signal to my colleagues that I wasn’t there to take their camera time. I wanted to get to know the institution, and I wanted to get to work doing things right away,” Franken said. “I’ve been on ‘Letterman’ and ‘The Daily Show.’ I loved doing that, but I actually came here to do things.”

Franken spoke about his first year in the Senate with casual authority – visibly knowledgeable about his legislation but conveying it without the overly polished aura of more senior politicians. And true to personality, he cracked the occasional sarcastic joke.

“It’s really hard to pass legislation as a comedian and really easy to do ‘The Daily Show,’ ” Franken said with his infectious, hearty laugh.

His arrival in Washington one year ago today followed a contentious recall and court dispute that spanned more than eight months. Franken was ultimately declared the winning candidate for Minnesota’s Senate seat, ousting GOP incumbent Norm Coleman by just 312 votes.

Gaining influence

Since being sworn in on July 7, 2009, Franken said he has sought to have influence on Capitol Hill by working across party lines and pursuing “common-sense” legislation.

Although a newcomer, Franken secured key provisions in both the health care and financial regulation reform bills – the first being to ensure that at least 85 percent of insurance premiums were spent on medical expenses, and the second to address conflicts of interest with credit-rating agencies.

Landing an appointment on the Senate Judiciary Committee also gave Franken key participation in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor during his first days as a senator and, now, with nominee Elena Kagan.

Despite his busy schedule last Wednesday – the morning he would question Kagan during her confirmation hearing – Franken hosted Minnesota visitors in his Capitol Hill office.

As few other members of Congress do, Franken hosts a breakfast every Wednesday morning for Minnesotans while Congress is in session, featuring a Franken favorite: Mahnomin Porridge.

Looking back

Reflecting on his first year over a bowl of porridge, Franken acknowledged the concerns some might have had about his senatorial career but said he doesn’t harbor sour feelings against those who doubted him.

“(The average Minnesotan doesn’t) have that much time to pay attention, so I don’t blame them,” Franken said. “It was perfectly natural for them to be skeptical about how I’d approach this job. If I didn’t know me, I would be.”

But, Franken said he believes he’s been effective so far in accomplishing his goals. As of mid-June, he had introduced 23 pieces of legislation, five of which had become law.

Many of Franken’s initiatives have focused on military issues – such as a program that seeks to provide service dogs to psychologically wounded veterans and a provision making the morning-after pill accessible on all military bases.

The emphasis on military issues stems from Franken’s participation in seven USO tours during his comedic years.

“I never served in the military, but doing USO tours, it was an incredible, meaningful experience to me,” Franken said. “I know the reality to some extent.”

Franken traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan each four times on USO tours between 1999 and 2006.

In January, he returned to Afghanistan for a fifth visit – this time as part of a congressional delegation trip with Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, which offered him a new view of military operations overseas.

“On a USO tour, I talked to a lot of officers,” he said. “I got the feeling that, because I was merely a comedian, they’d tell me stuff they might not tell a senator. But, never in the USO did I get to have lunch with (Afghan president) Hamid Karzai.”

Setting priorities

As Franken enters his second year in the Senate, he has his priorities set on energy and job-creation legislation, and overhauling No Child Left Behind.

Franken sits on the Senate committee that will craft the reauthorization of the Bush-era education policy, and he said he’s confident there’ll be strong bipartisan support, unlike with health care reform.

“There is tremendous agreement on the committee about the need to have accountability, but all the kind of wrongheaded ways that we went about it during No Child Left Behind,” Franken said. “We’ve really got to re-examine a lot about what we’re doing, and I’m very excited about that prospect.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541