After a scant eight months in office, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is breaking out of his shell and positioning himself as an aggressive liberal presence in the Senate — particularly when it comes to one of the most controversial topics in Washington, D.C.: health care reform.
"The first thing I wanted people to know was that I was there to be serious, that I would keep my head down and do my work," Franken said in his first extended national interview since he was seated in July. "Part of keeping my head down and doing my work was, as a Senator from a state that does this pretty well ... to study that and report back."
But in reporting back to his colleagues, Franken has taken on both a public and private role of liberal agitator. Though he is better known for his comedic turns on "Saturday Night Live" and has made extra efforts to stay out of the national spotlight since he was sworn in, Franken has proved himself well-versed in the policy ins and outs of health care reform and recently decided to become an outspoken voice pushing for a public insurance option.
Franken's liberal inspirations are undeniable: He considers his friend the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), whose seat he now holds, to be his inspiration, and he hangs photos of Wellstone and President John F. Kennedy in his office.
"People did not expect him to be a policy heavyweight, and he's worked hard to show that he knows as much or more than the next Senator," said one senior Senate Democratic aide, who likened Franken to Wellstone, who also carved out a reputation as a liberal firebrand.
Franken has repeatedly stood up in closed caucus lunches to be a "persistent reminder of core progressive principles" regardless of whether his position is supported by a majority of Democrats, the aide said. The aide added that like Wellstone, "He doesn't mind being a thorn in leadership's side" in that respect.
Indeed, Franken took an opportunity recently to challenge White House adviser David Axelrod on the White House's strategy regarding health care.
"It got out that I expressed my concern that the president [needed to] lead on this," Franken said of press accounts of the closed-door meeting. He added that the reports "were actually a little inaccurate, but not in a way that really matters that much. ... It didn't seem like I was standing up and yelling."
[IMGCAP(1)]But he pronounced himself "very happy" with last week's White House health care summit, and he said he believes he has been a constructive voice in the debate.
"I think they look at me as someone who has been pretty knowledgeable about the issue," Franken said. "I have spoken up in our caucus meetings, you know. The first time medical loss ratio came up was there. Other issues I've brought up in caucus where Members have seen, Oh, OK, Al knows this issue and it would be great" if he could speak on it.
The wonky-sounding medical loss ratio issue can be counted among Franken's wins in his short tenure. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said Franken "educated the whole caucus well" on how Minnesota successfully limited how much money health insurers could spend on administrative costs, advertising and profits.
The Senate-passed bill includes a Franken provision, co-authored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), that would require insurance companies to use 85 percent of customer premiums on medical costs.
But Franken's big push has been on the public insurance option, a controversial liberal priority that dominated the debate last year and caused Republicans to charge that it was the first step to socialized medicine.
Franken said he supports health care legislation that does not include the public option, but he said the public option is still his preference for reform. He signed on to a letter penned by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) pushing for the public option through budget reconciliation rules that would allow the Senate to sidestep a GOP filibuster.
"I really think the public option is the right thing to do. Now, whether we can get it through reconciliation is a whole other story," Franken said. "I know that Sen. Jay Rockefeller is someone who's for the public option but doesn't think that it will be able to go through reconciliation because, I think, of the rules. It doesn't fit under the rules. I think it does, but we'll see."
Indeed, Senate leaders spent much of last summer trying to figure out a way to pass a public option in a reconciliation bill, but they determined it would not likely adhere to strict rules governing reconciliation that require all provisions to have a budgetary impact. Those complicated rules are likely to be used to pass a supplemental health care measure after a potential House endorsement of the Senate-passed health care bill, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) confirmed this weekend that trying to enact a public option through reconciliation is not on the table.
When asked whether he thought pushing the public option so late in the process put him at odds his party's leadership, Franken responded: "In a way, we're testing how realistic it is, and it's the right thing to do."
Franken's seating in the Senate in July provided Democrats with the 60th vote they needed to overcome what was shaping up to be unanimous GOP opposition to health care reform. Sixty votes are needed to beat back a filibuster.
Though Sen. Scott Brown's (R-Mass.) election in January threw enactment of a health care bill into doubt, liberals began agitating again for the public option, arguing that it could be passed through budget reconciliation rules.
"I saw that path Wednesday morning after Massachusetts," Franken said. "And I just wanted to rally people and say, This is it. Pledge and pass.' I thought and then got together with some more progressive Senators here about the way to do this."
Franken said he called members of the Minnesota House delegation in the coming days to feel them out about the possibility of reconciliation. He said he even exchanged words with the Senate Parliamentarian, who is charged with deciding whether provisions in a reconciliation bill adhere to the rules.
"He's one of those guys who's shown already a good understanding of how you do this job. He sees the entire health care debate and bill-writing through the eyes of a Minnesotan. He looks always at the impact of his bill in Minnesota," Sherrod Brown said.
Cautiously Deploying Celebrity
Franken has come to his new public role slowly and deliberately. Franken's office turns down anywhere from five to dozens of interview requests from national news outlets per week, and the freshman Senator has not done a single national television appearance since a brief press conference after he was sworn in. Even in agreeing to talk to Roll Call, Franken's office insisted on keeping the topic limited primarily to health care.
He gives interviews to local media on a regular basis but has made an extra effort to stay out of the national spotlight despite passing bipartisan and sometimes controversial legislation such as the Jamie Leigh Jones amendment.
"There's no question about that. ... These events maybe have a little larger turnout and people pay a little closer attention because it's me, and I'm aware of that obviously, but that's why I pick my spots," Franken said of how he carefully uses his celebrity status.
Ron Pollack, the executive director of the health care advocacy organization Families USA, tried for two years without success to get Franken to address the annual conference of more than 800 activists in Washington.
Finally, on Pollack's third invitation, for this year's conference on Jan. 28, Franken headlined the confab — following in the footsteps of some of the most famous Senators of the past decade: President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
"He's well-known. Everybody who came to the conference knew of Al Franken," Pollack said. "But he's also on one of the two committees that has jurisdiction over health care, and he is knowledgeable about health care and was so prior to winning a seat."
Franken also addressed a NARAL Pro-Choice America luncheon on Feb. 2, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. He fired up a crowd of 500 activists at another rally for health care reform in Minneapolis on Feb. 21 organized by MoveOn.org, Organizing for America, local labor groups and Health Care for America Now.
But for now, Franken is not prepared to open himself up to all comers by taking questions from reporters in the hallway on the story of the day, be it health care or any other topic. He says he doesn't yet know when he will be ready to do that. But he said he feels he is still working to make sure his colleagues and his constituents know he is not taking his job lightly and that he wants to be a valuable asset in the Senate.
"People had a right to be skeptical, I guess, that here I am in show business and you know, [ask] Is Al going to jump in front of the camera or is he going to be focused on the people of Minnesota?'" Franken said. "But the NARAL thing was the NARAL thing. It wasn't Meet the Press.'"