Politics

The Strange Day of Senate Farewells

Franken, Strange speeches were very different scenes

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and his wife Franni, leave the Capitol on December 7, 2017, after Franken announced on the Senate floor that he will resign his seat. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Thursday became departure day in the Senate, with back-to-back farewell speeches oddly linked due to the recent wave of allegations about sexual harassment.

Staffers and visitors, along with members of the media, filled the Senate chamber Thursday morning for Sen. Al Franken’s announcement that he would in fact resign his seat in the aftermath of an ever-increasing number of sexual harassment allegations.

The Minnesota Democrat announced his intent to leave the Senate after an outpouring of Democratic colleagues calling for his resignation, even as he cast doubt on some of the allegations against him from women who allege groping and unwanted kissing.

After Franken spoke, Democratic colleagues lined up to hug and bid farewell; Franken did not specify a precise resignation date in his speech, but he said it would take place “in the coming weeks.”

One Republican sat at his desk for the duration of Franken’s speech, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. Flake crossed the aisle to join the Democrats in offering farewells.

Watch - Franken: Glimpses of a Departing Senator

Many of the senators in attendance were among those leading the wave calling on Franken to resign Wednesday, led by New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

But no senator spoke to the chamber after Franken to thank the Minnesotan for his service, not even his closest friends in the chamber or his home state colleague, Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

“As the women who have come forward to tell their stories across America have made clear, sexual harassment is never acceptable. In every workplace in America, including the U.S. Senate, we must confront the challenges of harassment and misconduct,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “Nothing is easy or pleasant about this, but we all must recognize that our workplace cultures — and the way we treat each other as human beings — must change.”

Franken at one point made direct reference to the situation playing out in Alabama, where Republican nominee Roy Moore, a former judge, may be well on his way to being elected to the Senate on Tuesday, despite multiple allegations that he engaged in inappropriate relationships with teenage girls when he was in his 30s.

Not to mention the many alleged inappropriate acts of President Donald Trump.

“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” Franken said. “But this decision is not about me, it’s about the people of Minnesota.”

There was further irony in the timing of Franken’s speech, as it came just after Alabama GOP Sen. Luther Strange offered his own farewell address.

Strange, the appointed senator who replaced Attorney General Jeff Sessions, lost his bid for the Republican nomination for Alabama’s special election to none other than Moore.

A number of Republican leaders were in the chamber for Strange’s remarks, but Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Viginia was the only Democrat present for both the Strange and Franken departure speeches.

Strange’s speech was greeted with several tributes, including from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who was born in Alabama, and Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas. There was no similar ode to Franken, despite neither man leaving immediately.

Strange will likely serve until his successor’s election result is certified, which may not be until January. Franken, for his part, will take a little time to wind down his office.

Franken staffers, who sat at a bench in the back row of the chamber, must quickly look for new places of employment, though some may well be kept on by the Democrat appointed ultimately named as Franken’s successor by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Klobuchar greeted the Franken staff before the speech, approaching and shaking hands with each of them as they awaited arrival of their soon-to-be former boss on the floor.

Franken sought to dispel the notion that his previous statements of support for listening to the women who have made allegations against him should be construed as his admitting guilt or fault.

“Some of the allegations against me are simply not true, others I remember very differently. I said at the outset that the Ethics Committee was the right venue for these allegations to be heard and investigated and evaluated on their merits, that I was prepared to cooperate fully and that I was confident in the outcome,” Franken said.

He also suggested that much of the conduct in question was not related to his Senate service.

But in the end, given the substantial concerns of his colleagues, Franken decided that he could not be an effective member of the Senate’s Democratic caucus.

On his way out, Franken channeled Paul Wellstone, the late senator and Democratic-Farmer-Labor leader whom he idolized.

“Politics, Paul wellstone told us, is about the improvement of people’s lives. I know that the work I’ve been able to do has improved people’s lives,” he said. “I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.