Franken takes a ju­di­cious ap­proach

Af­ter forg­ing a se­ri­ous rep­u­ta­tion as a sen­a­tor, ex-co­me­dian light­ens up

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KAREN TU­MULTY

It was a half-hour be­fore one of the sparsely at­tended com­mit­tee hear­ings that take place al­most every day on Capi­tol Hill — in this case, a ses­sion on en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture so dry it would not merit even the pres­ence of a C-SPAN cam­era.

But in Al Franken’s suite of of­fices in the Hart Se­nate Of­fice Build­ing, the man still known best as one of the early stars of “Satur­day Night Live” was go­ing through an in­tense re­hearsal with four aides.

How much, Franken wanted to know, are the Chi­nese spend­ing on clean tech­nol­ogy re­search? Where do things stand on the Univer­sity of Min­nesota’s study of tor­refac­tion, a roast­ing process that pro­duces bet­ter fuel for biomass en­ergy pro­duc­tion? And might there be a chance to ask a ques­tion about one of his fa­vorite causes, loan guar­an­tees for Na­tive Amer­i­can reser­va­tions?

“I just want to keep bring­ing it up, so they keep hear­ing it,” Franken said, with a trace of a sigh.

Ev­ery­one is hear­ing a lot more from Min­nesota’s ju­nior sen­a­tor these days.

At the dawn of a pres­i­dency that stretches the lim­its of latenight par­ody, and at a mo­ment when an out-of-power Demo­cratic Party is try­ing to find its voice, the for­mer co­me­dian and satirist may be hav­ing a break­out mo­ment as a po­lit­i­cal star.

He is also find­ing it safe to be funny again.

Franken, now 65, barely made it to the Se­nate, tak­ing his oath in July 2009 af­ter a bal­lot re­count that took eight months to re­solve. So he spent his first term try­ing to prove he was not a joke — but­ton­ing up his wit, buck­ling down on es­o­teric is­sues and sidestep­ping all but his home-state me­dia.

“I won by 312 votes, right?” he said in an in­ter­view. “I had to show peo­ple that I was tak­ing the job se­ri­ously, and I had come here

se­ri­ous pur­poses, and I am still here for se­ri­ous pur­poses. So I think I just felt like I was on pro­ba­tion.”

That dili­gence paid off in 2014, a dis­as­trous year for Democrats na­tion­ally, when Franken was re­elected with a dou­ble-digit mar­gin.

In be­tween, he de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion on Capi­tol Hill for pol­icy chops and pen­e­trat­ing ques­tions — skills that have been on dis­play dur­ing con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings of Pres­i­dent Trump’s Cabi­net nom­i­nees.

Franken “had an in­stinct for the leg­isla­tive process, but the one tal­ent that sur­prised me a lit­tle bit be­yond that was his tal­ent for cross-ex­am­i­na­tion,” said po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Nor­man Orn­stein, a close friend. “He has that Perry Mason qual­ity.”

An ex­change with Franken tripped up Jeff Ses­sions, then a fel­low sen­a­tor and now the at­tor­ney gen­eral, dur­ing his ap­pear­ance be­fore the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee.

Franken in­quired what Ses­sions would do if he learned that any­one af­fil­i­ated with the Trump cam­paign had com­mu­ni­cated with the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment in 2016.

He was try­ing to nudge Ses­sions into re­cus­ing him­self, and he was star­tled when the Alabamian of­fered in­for­ma­tion he had not asked for.

“I have been called a sur­ro­gate at a time or two in that cam­paign, and I did not have com­mu­ni­ca­tions with the Rus­sians,” Ses­sions said.

Af­ter The Wash­ing­ton Post re­vealed that Ses­sions had met with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador twice last year, the at­tor­ney gen­eral did in­deed have to prom­ise to step aside from any Jus­tice De­part­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

In his grilling of Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos, Franken re­vealed her lack of fa­mil­iar­ity with one of the big de­bates in the ed­u­ca­tion field, which is whether stu­dent achieve­ment should be mea­sured by pro­fi­ciency or growth.

Franken later de­clared it “one the most em­bar­rass­ing per­for­mances by a nom­i­nee in the history of the United States Se­nate.”

“We wouldn’t ac­cept a sec­re­tary of de­fense who couldn’t name the branches of the mil­i­tary,” he ar­gued as the Se­nate pre­pared to vote. “We wouldn’t ac­cept a sec­re­tary of state who couldn’t find Europe on a map. We wouldn’t ac­cept a trea­sury sec­re­tary who doesn’t un­der­stand mul­ti­pli­ca­tion.”

Al­though one had to with­draw (An­drew Puzder, Trump’s first nom­i­nee for la­bor sec­re­tary), all of Trump’s other nom­i­nees have been ap­proved by the Se­nate, a re­flec­tion of two re­al­i­ties: Repub­li­cans have 52 votes, and Democrats, when they had the ma­jor­ity in 2013, did away with the power to fil­i­buster Cabi­net picks, a pro­ce­dure that re­quires 60 votes to sur­mount.

But Franken’s ques­tions have left a mark. He will be at it again start­ing Mon­day, when Supreme Court nom­i­nee Neil Gor­such goes be­fore the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee.

When he met pri­vately with Gor­such, Franken said, the nom­i­nee “seemed eva­sive, on pretty much ev­ery­thing I asked him.”

So given the chance to grill Gor­such pub­licly, “I’m re­ally go­ing to be go­ing to cer­tain ar­eas that serve what I con­sider his pro-cor­po­rate bias, which I think has been the bias of the court, the Roberts court,” Franken said.

The Min­nesota sen­a­tor spent the last eight years prov­ing that he’s good enough, smart enough, and dog­gone it, peo­ple like him. (Don’t groan. Re­porters who write about him should be al­lowed the in­dul­gence of us­ing at least one of his sig­na­ture lines from SNL.)

Near­ing the half­way mark of his sec­ond term, Franken said, he feels “a lit­tle freer to be my­self, and so every once in awhile, some­thing comes out.”

At the end of May, Franken has a book com­ing out — part mem­oir, part pol­icy pre­scrip­tive — that he has wryly ti­tled: “Al Franken, Giant of the Se­nate.”

Franken has a laugh that bursts like a Tommy gun, and it does not take much to get it go­ing. His staff keeps track of him on the Se­nate floor by lis­ten­ing for erup­tions on their of­fice tele­vi­sions.

But the best stage to see Franken-style leg­isla­tive im­prov is the hear­ing room. One re­cent ex­change went vi­ral.

“Gov­er­nor, thank you so much for com­ing into my of­fice. Did you en­joy meet­ing me?” he asked for­mer Texas gov­er­nor Rick Perry, who was up for con­fir­ma­tion as en­ergy sec­re­tary.

“I hope you are as much fun on that dais as you were on your couch,” Perry replied. In the awk­ward laugh­ter that fol­lowed, Perry added: “May I re­phrase that?”

“Please,” Franken said, shud- de­r­ing. “Oh my lord.”

Those mo­ments aside, and with Don­ald Trump in the White House, “I don’t think my role to play here has any­thing to do with hu­mor,” Franken said. “I don’t think hu­mor is the tool I’m sup­posed to be us­ing.”

A celebrity be­comes a sen­a­tor

By one mea­sure, Franken’s ca­reer has come full cir­cle. In a 1991 “Satur­day Night Live” skit, he played a mem­ber of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee. A week ago, on an episode of SNL’s “Week­end Up­date,” cast mem­ber Alex Mof­fat por­trayed Franken in what is now a real-life role on that panel.

He has many sides. Dur­ing slow pe­ri­ods in com­mit­tee hear­ings, Franken some­times sketches elab­o­rate por­traits on a notepad. If he does not take them when he leaves, Se­nate staffers scoop up the Franken doo­dles as col­lec­tor’s items.

But celebrity is a tricky thing in the Se­nate cham­ber, a place al­ready well stocked with ego and am­bi­tion.

Franken said he found an early men­tor in Tam­era Luz­zatto, who was Hil­lary Clin­ton’s Se­nate chief of staff at the time. Luz­zatto had pre­vi­ously worked for Sen. Jay Rock­e­feller (D-W.Va.), an­other fa­mous name.

Luz­zatto ad­vised Franken to keep a low pro­file, take care of his state and al­ways show up well pre­pared.

“What we re­ally talked about is, there is still an op­por­tu­nity in the Se­nate to get to know each other, and im­press one an­other with your work ethic,” Luz­zatto re­called. “The way one han­dles fame as an elected of­fi­cial — sen­a­tors in par­tic­u­lar — can help or harm you.”

When Sen. Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.), then the mi­nor­ity leader, made a speech on the Se­nate floor in 2010 opposing the con­fir­ma­tion of Elena Ka­gan to the Supreme Court, he no­ticed Franken rolling his eyes. The im­pro­pri­ety was made worse by the fact that Franken was pre­sid­ing over the Se­nate at the time.

“This isn’t ‘Satur­day Night Live,’ Al,” McCon­nell said. Franken apol­o­gized. As it hap­pens, Franken’s ar­rival in Wash­ing­ton marked the very mo­ment that Demo­cratic power reached a pin­na­cle.

His be­lated ar­rival in 2009 gave the party its 60th vote in the Se­nate, the one that made their agenda fil­i­buster-proof and opened, among other things, the pos­si­bil­ity of pass­ing Pres­i­dent Obama’s health-care law on Demo­cratic sup­port alone.

But that dom­i­nance did not last long. The fol­low­ing Jan­uary, Repub­li­cans picked up a Mas­sachusetts Se­nate seat and be­gan a long march back to the ma­jor­ity, which they won in 2014, the year Franken was re­elected.

And with Trump’s elec­tion, the party is shut out of power at both ends of Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue.

Franken brings a set of skills for nav­i­gat­ing the wilder­ness they are in, Orn­stein said. “It’s clear they need fo­cused champi­for ons who can use the tools avail­able to the mi­nor­ity to make points and frame is­sues and put peo­ple on the de­fen­sive and un­mask things that need to be un­masked.”

Where it took Franken nearly six years to agree to his first Sun­day show ap­pear­ance as a sen­a­tor, he now shows up on them fre­quently. There has even been talk of his po­ten­tial as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date.

“No. No,” he said. “I like this job. I re­ally like this job. I like rep­re­sent­ing the peo­ple of Min­nesota. I feel like I’m re­ally be­gin­ning to know this job.”

Vot­ers in Min­nesota — a tra­di­tion­ally Demo­cratic state that Trump lost by only a point and a half — also are pay­ing at­ten­tion to Franken’s emer­gence.

With an­other celebrity in the White House, “the con­text has com­pletely changed,” said Kathryn L. Pear­son, a po­lit­i­cal-science pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota. “There’s no ques­tion that his Demo­cratic con­stituents are en­thu­si­as­tic about his high­level role at the national level, but it cer­tainly is riskier [with] Repub­li­cans in Min­nesota, and even in­de­pen­dents.”

The night be­fore a hear­ing, Franken takes the pre­pared tes­ti­mony of wit­nesses home and pores over it for weak­nesses and in­ac­cu­ra­cies. If a study is cited in a foot­note, he will read that too, he said.

“Very of­ten, when I think some­one isn’t be­ing truth­ful, that gets my ire up,” Franken said. He cited a skir­mish in the Ses­sions con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing over a ques­tion­naire in which the sen­a­tor from Alabama claimed to have “per­son­ally” lit­i­gated sev­eral im­por­tant civil rights cases when he was a U.S. at­tor­ney. Other lawyers in­volved said Ses­sions’ role had ac­tu­ally been min­i­mal.

Press­ing Ses­sions on the dis­crep­ancy, Franken got him to ad­mit that his role in some of the cases had con­sisted of “as­sis­tance and guid­ance” and that he “had been sup­port­ive of them.”

Repub­li­can sen­a­tors ob­jected to such rough treat­ment of one of their own. “It is un­for­tu­nate to see mem­bers of this body im­pugn the in­tegrity of a fel­low sen­a­tor with whom we have served for years,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said.

But for Franken, the mo­ment was sweet: “That was fun for me.”

But he is also part of the club. When the bells rang for a vote on a re­cent af­ter­noon, Franken and four col­leagues crowded onto a Se­nate sub­way car.

“We have Franken here to make us laugh!” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) an­nounced. Which they all did. “The first time Franken presided,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told them, “I was sitting and look­ing at his pro­file, and all I could think was ‘Satur­day Night Live.’ ”

Franken smiled. All that seemed like a long time ago.

PHO­TOS BY MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Min­nesota Sen. Al Franken (D) has proved to be a for­mi­da­ble politi­cian, cred­ited with play­ing an in­te­gral role dur­ing the con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings of At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions and Sec­re­tary of Ed­u­ca­tion Betsy DeVos. Pres­i­dent Trump’s Supreme Court nom­i­nee, Neil Gor­such, goes be­fore Franken and other mem­bers of the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee on Mon­day.

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