Mr. Franken Comes to Washington
Updated 5:41 p.m.
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Al Franken spent months trapped in an electoral limbo that was almost unprecedented. Trying to prepare for his potential job, one that he had not officially won yet, he watched the U.S. Senate on C-Span but also tuned into updates on the trial about his contested election on a Minnesota Web site called theuptake.org. He warmly greeted well-wishers who told him how much they wished he were in the Senate, while at the same privately fuming about missing key votes.
Meanwhile, his wife, Franni, kept a bag packed beside their bed in their Minneapolis home, ready to leave at a moment's notice if her husband was declared the winner and they needed to rush to Washington for a key vote.
Finally today, eight months and six days after his Nov. 4 election contest against Norm Coleman, Franken was greeted in the Capitol as "Senator-elect."
The former "Saturday Night Live" writer and performer looked stern and serious as he joined Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) before a huge throng of reporters.
Dressed in a dark suit and blue tie, and sticking carefully to talking points for his two minutes of remarks, Franken seemed more like Reid's shorter, stockier twin than a three-time Emmy winner for comedy.
"I'm going to work day and night to make sure our kids have a great future and that Americans' best days lie ahead," said Franken, who will be officially sworn in Tuesday. "I'm ready to get to work." He expressed a desire for "a rational health care system" and "an economy that works for working families."
He declined to take any questions, instead rushing into his office in the Hart Senate Office Building.
His wife and daughter had no such reserve about finally arriving at their moment of victory. Franni Franken hugged a couple of reporters from Minnesota who had come for the day, telling them how excited she was to be in Washington.
"I think it's just about as cool as you might expect," Franken's daughter, Thomasin, 28, told a reporter from a Minnesota NBC station.
When a pair of visitors to the Capitol walked into Franken's new office, where his nameplate was put up a few hours earlier, Franni Franken thanked them for coming and talked about the long journey to the Senate.
"We have friends and supporters who had children [early in the campaign], and now they are talking," she said.
A longtime political activist, Franken's arrival was no "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." The former comedian has come to the nation's capitol numerous times, including six since the November election.
Through Craigslist, Franni Franken has found a house on Capitol Hill where the couple expects to live, but upon their arrival in town Sunday night, they stayed at the home of Norman Ornstein, a longtime Franken friend who is an oft-quoted congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
At the Capitol today, Franken practiced for the swearing-in ceremony, spent 30 minutes with Reid and then several hours with his staff. His long wait time has allowed Franken more time than almost any senator ever to select his staff, but many of the potential staffers haven't actually left their old jobs yet; before this week, Franken did not have an official budget to pay them.
After his swearing-in, at which he will be joined by Vice President Biden, former vice president and Minnesota senator Walter Mondale, and the state's senior senator, Amy Klobuchar (D), Franken will be expected to learn quickly. He has spent not only learning about key issues like health reform, but also trying to master the arcane procedures of the Senate by meeting with former Senate staffers.
He will need to learn quickly. He will join the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will consider the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor next week, and the Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is working on health-care legislation. Franken will also sit on the ommittees on Aging and Indian Affairs (there are several Native American tribes in the state).
Franken has signaled he will play down his fame and leave behind his reputation for both humor and partisanship. In a chamber full of former governors and would be-presidents, Franken has never served in elective office nor even as a staffer. He also has a resume that suggests he never truly expected to be here, writing a satirical piece in Playboy magazine about pornography in 2000 titled "Porn-O-Rama," using the phrase "big fat idiot" to describe both former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and talk show host Rush Limbaugh, and shouting a string of expletives to describe Republicans when he spoke at a fundraiser for Howard Dean's presidential campaign a few years ago.
Klobuchar, who has talked to Franken frequently over the last few months, said, "He can still be amusing."
But both Reid and Thomasin Franken said people in Washington would be "pleasantly surprised" by Al Franken's knowledge of policy, suggesting that people looking for a comedian in the Senate might have to look elsewhere.
"There's plenty of room for humor in politics, God knows, but it's a serious business," Franken told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in an interview last week.
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