K Street Awaits Mr. Franken

Despite Fundraising, Few Downtown Ties for New Senator

Posted July 6, 2009 at 6:36pm

After eight months in political limbo, Sen.-elect Al Franken (Minn.) may suddenly be the most popular member of the Democratic caucus.

That’s to say nothing of his status on K Street.

Although Franken — who will become the chamber’s 60th member of the Democratic caucus — tried to minimize his impact, Democratic lobbyists have been practically salivating for Franken’s arrival.

“A lot has been made of this number 60,— said Franken at a Monday event where he was welcomed by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “The number I’m focused on is the number 2. I see myself as the second Senator from the state of Minnesota.—

Franken has long been dialing for dollars inside the Beltway to help fund his campaign and lengthy recount effort.

But he doesn’t have a stable of downtown confidants, according to several Democratic lobbyists.

“He’s a virtual unknown,— said one.

“Folks on K Street are anxious to see what makes him tick and to get a sense of what his priorities are,— said another Democratic lobbyist.

They may not have to wait long.

While today will largely be devoted to the grip-and-grins of being installed as a Member of Congress, the Franken campaign is hosting a party to watch the 12:15 p.m. swearing-in and an after-party with Franken and his wife, Franni, in the Hart Senate Office Building.

Later, the AFL-CIO is hosting a reception in Franken’s honor at its headquarters from 5 to 7 p.m.

Franken has already started doing some of those meetings, according to his spokeswoman, Jess McIntosh.

Over the past several months, Franken has met with Minnesota health care professionals and a group that helps train service dogs for veterans.

“He’s been meeting mostly with elected officials, former elected officials and former Hill staffers,— McIntosh said. “Really the focus of those meetings has been how does the institution of the Senate work so that he can pull the trigger on the most number of things possible.—

After officially taking on his new role, Franken will face an expanded lobbying contingency of Minnesota-based Fortune 500 companies looking to make an entree with the Senate’s newest Member, lobbyists say.

Medtronic, 3M, Northwest Airlines, Target and Cargill are just a few of the large corporate entities headquartered in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

[IMGCAP(1)]Still, Franken’s general agenda, which he laid out Monday, includes many liberal code words at which business industry lobbyists are likely to recoil.

“Minnesotans are very practical people. … Minnesotans want a rational health care system that provides health care for all Americans that is accessible and affordable. Just get the costs down,— said Franken. “Minnesotans want an economy that works for working families. That means jobs, that means a decent day’s wage for an honest day’s work, and it means protecting people’s retirement.—

He also stressed creating energy policy “that addresses climate change and that is going to wean us from our dependence on foreign oil— as well as bolstering education.

“I am going to work day and night to make sure that our kids have a great future and that America’s best days lay ahead,— he said. “I’m ready to get to work.—

How closely Franken will work with lobbyists is unclear.

So far, he hasn’t taken up the anti-lobbyist rhetoric that has saturated Washington. But during the election, Franken did run an ad saying that Congress should pass a ban on former Members of Congress becoming lobbyists.

McIntosh said she believes that is still Franken’s position, although she doesn’t expect him to wade into the debate in the near term.

Lobbyists say they are cheered by Franken’s decision to hire one of their own, Drew Littman, as his chief of staff. Littman, a former longtime senior aide to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), has been a lobbyist since 1999. He worked at Podesta Group and later formed his own consulting firm, Littman Associates.

Littman worked for clients such as the Children’s Defense Fund, Electrum, the Reproductive Health Technologies Project and the U.S. Telecom Association before terminating all of his active clients at the end of June, according to federal lobbying disclosure reports.

The choice was an obvious one, according to several Democratic lobbyists.

“He’s a natural for the job of chief of staff to a new Senator, especially someone starting six months late,— said his former boss, Tony Podesta of Podesta Group. “He knows the Senate like the back of his hand and he is incredibly good at building and mentoring a staff.—

Franken also tapped K Streeters to contribute to his recount efforts. More than 225 lobbyists and corporate and nonprofit political action committees contributed to Franken’s election efforts during the final six months of 2008, according to federal lobbyist disclosure records.

Several lobbyists also contributed at a fundraiser that California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) held in mid-June at her Washington home for Franken. The event, which raised about $300,000, drew power brokers like Steve Elmendorf of Elmendorf Strategies and Heather and Tony Podesta.

While Franken is expected to fit squarely into the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, it’s unclear on which issues he will really engage.

Franken will be jumping quickly into the fire with a seat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is already two weeks into marking up its massive health care reform package. He also will have only two weeks to ready himself for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing as a member of the Judiciary Committee.

With the HELP Committee already far along in crafting its health care reform proposal, it’s unlikely Franken will have much of an impact on the committee’s final product.

But he could make a larger imprint on Sotomayor’s confirmation process, lobbyists say.

Jeff Peck, of Peck, Madigan, Jones & Stewart, said Franken’s status as the most junior member of the panel — the questioning takes place according to seniority — could end up to his advantage.

“He’ll have an opportunity to hear the questioning and give and take of his more senior colleagues before he has to ask questions,— Peck said. “It’s hard to be at the end of the dais because a lot of good questions will have already been asked, but in his case it will be sort of an education.—

Besides HELP and Judiciary, Franken will also sit on the Indian Affairs panel and on the Aging Committee.

Despite his scant ties to K Street, Franken has raised money for previous political candidates. He also made the rounds at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s retreat last summer in Martha’s Vineyard, a weekend event widely attended by lobbyists.

He’ll have a similar opportunity later this month when Franken and Boxer share a fundraiser July 18 at Martha’s Vineyard.

Although it is not officially tied to the DSCC retreat, Boxer campaign manager Rose Kapolczynski said they hope the fundraiser will draw many of the DSCC attendees.

In May, the pair started the Boxer-Franken 2009 PAC, to help raise money for Boxer’s 2010 re-election campaign and for Franken’s legal costs.

The duo planned a fundraiser before Franken’s final confirmation by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

“It is still on because it’s my understanding there are still significant expenses outstanding from the eight-month legal battle, and then, of course, Sen. Boxer is headed to what could be a tough race in 2010,— said Kapolczynski.

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.