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Senator Smiley: Al Franken pulls no punches, but adds a few punch lines

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010; C01

Al Franken is working on some new material.

After arriving in the Senate in July after a bitterly contested recount, the former "Saturday Night Live" satirist immediately set out to prove that he was no court jester. He pursued Hillary Clinton's expectations-defying model of bipartisan workhorse and convincingly assumed the role of diligent policy wonk.

But by so effectively suppressing the punch lines, Franken exposed an irascible, sometimes nasty side of his personality. In a chamber where goodwill helps a freshman rack up legislative achievements, that can be just as damaging.

Without humor to soften his acute observations, Franken's naked sarcasm, short fuse and sense of showmanship ran amok, leading to public blowups with Republicans, private grievances among Democrats and attacks on senior Obama administration officials. Several sources at a private meeting last month said they heard Franken tell White House senior adviser David Axelrod that the president should apologize for his stupid campaign promise to televise health-care discussions.

Now some colleagues and Senate analysts are noticing flashes of the old Franken humor -- tempered to suit a stodgier audience -- as the Democratic junior senator from Minnesota seeks to find the appropriate balance between humorist and humorless scold.

"Right at the beginning, he was trying not to," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said of Franken's effort not to be funny. "But you can't help who you actually are."

"It serves him well if it's used well -- if it's used to make him a more genial colleague," Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst at the Cook Political Report, said of Franken's resurgent jocularity. She added that the suppression of Franken's lighter side to highlight his policy chops may have backfired. "Keeping that huge part of his personality bottled up for so long may have caused some of these eruptions, because he had no outlet."

Breaking out the funny as political rehab? Franken's aides call the notion risible. Any reappearance of the lawmaker's comedic stylings -- audibly yukking it up in Senate elevators, citing Mad magazine's "Spy vs. Spy" in Judiciary Committee hearings, reprising his comedic role as a the "Duluth Answer Man" to win super-speed Web service from Google -- is, they say, a result of his having grown comfortable in the Senate and having successfully built relationships with his colleagues. He's been using humor to make friends all along, they say. And several allies in the Senate say they haven't observed a change in Franken.

* * *

He has taken Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to breakfast, and he has wept at a blues song Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) wrote for Ted Kennedy. He plays squash with Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.). He and his wife of 34 years are preparing invites for senatorial barbecues at their converted carriage house on Capitol Hill. He refuses to grant interviews to the national press, preferring to appear on local Minnesota news loading sandbags in a Vikings sweatshirt to help prepare for flooding along the Red River.

And legislatively, Franken, the author of "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot," made a point to propose remarkably mild fare.

In July, his Service Dogs for Veterans Act passed with bipartisan support. He has co-sponsored proposed legislation with Hatch to recruit better principals for troubled schools; with Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) to end the rape-kit backlog; and with Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) to push a diabetes prevention act. His committee leaders think the world of his preparation and dedication. "He's always been there when I need him," said Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "To keep a quorum when things go on forever."

But Franken also made his presence felt in other ways.

"You go through a torturous election like he did," said Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), "my guess is there is an amount of assertion when you say, 'Yeah! Here I am.' "

In early February, Franken rose during a private panel discussion with the Democratic caucus and Axelrod and theatrically declared, "I've been in a slow burn" about the administration's handling of health care, according to several attendees who asked to remain anonymous to discuss the details of a private meeting. He then launched into an extended critique and demanded to know from Axelrod when the president would take a leading role in pushing the issue. According to multiple sources familiar with the proceedings, Axelrod countered that the president had constantly championed health-care reform.

Franken, according to several sources, urged Axelrod to answer his question and aggressively suggested that the administration push the House to pass the Senate's health-care reform bill. Axelrod replied that if Franken had the names of 218 supportive members of Congress in his pocket, he'd gladly pass them along to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Axelrod added that he doubted Franken did.

Franken then, according to multiple sources, directed his ire toward President Obama.

"When will he apologize for his stupid idea to put these discussions on C-SPAN," Franken said, according to two sources.

Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) then sought to defuse the situation by saying the dispute was between the House and Senate, not the Senate and the White House.

Meager applause met the end of Franken's remarks, according to one attendee, though his willingness to raise his voice did not go unappreciated by his colleagues. A few minutes after the exchange, Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said, "David, you didn't answer Al's question," according to another attendee. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) struck a similar, if more civil, note. An aide to Nelson, when asked about the Florida senator's remarks at the meeting, said he had told Axelrod that -- minus the insult -- "Al's expressing a frustration felt by me and a lot of the Democratic senators."

Franken's spokeswoman, Jess McIntosh, declined to comment on closed meetings with other senators.

In November, Franken testily approached Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) about an editorial he and Alexander authored explaining their opposition to Franken's assault-victims' rights amendment, which had passed. Then a meeting to make amends went awry when Franken spent much of the time chastising an aide to the Tennessean. Corker asked Franken to redirect his criticism toward his peer.

In early December, John Thune (R-S.D.) claimed in a Senate speech that the Democrats' health-care legislation was slow to offer benefits. Franken approached Thune on the Senate floor and, shortly after, publicly blasted the Republican in a floor speech that breached Senate etiquette by revealing their private conversation.

" 'Did you actually happen to mention any of the benefits that do kick in right away?' " Franken said in his speech, recalling what he had asked Thune on the floor. "And he said, 'Uh, no.' "

Franken, dripping with sarcasm, then wondered if Thune had even read the bill.

In December, Franken again made the YouTube rounds when he refused to grant Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) additional time to complete his remarks.

"Really?" Lieberman said in shock.

John McCain (R-Ariz.) then stood up and interjected, "This is the first time I've ever seen a member denied an extra minute or two." McCain added that "it harms the comity of the Senate."

* * *

The fits of pique reinforced Franken's image as a champion of the liberal left, in the purposeful tradition of his Minnesota idol, Paul Wellstone. The Al Franken edition of the "Political Power" comic book series is due out in May. ("There is a two-page confrontation with Barbara Bush that shows the beginnings of his animus," said Jerome Maida, the comic's author.) And this month, the Netroots Nation named Franken keynote speaker at its annual convention in Las Vegas. But within the Senate chamber, the outbursts derailed Franken's strategy of keeping his head down.

Thune said he hadn't seen anything like Franken's vitriol on the floor "in my time here," though he noticed a course correction: "He's trying." After their exchange, Franken reached out to him, and as per his collegial policy, sent a birthday card. "It had a hint of comedy in it," Thune said, dryly.

"He is trying to sit on our side of the aisle as much as the other," Corker said. "He's really putting an effort in."

"Al's worked hard to adjust to the Senate," said Alexander, adding that "he's gotten accustomed to the fact that there are lots of votes here. It may have taken him a little bit."

And McCain, explaining the Lieberman incident, said Franken "did tell me he had been instructed not to let any speaker go over. So I said, 'Okay, fine, if that's what the majority leader told you to do.' "

Franken's efforts to improve relations are not limited to Republicans. Several senators and Senate insiders said that a tension between Franken and his Minnesota colleague, Amy Klobuchar, was palpable. ("There's always some of that in a state," said Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.)

Klobuchar, wildly popular in the Senate and the very picture of Minnesota nice, didn't have a bad thing to say about Franken. "Overall, we get along well personally," she said. As a matter of fact, she said, she really appreciated a joke Franken made last week, when people kept asking her about her eye, which was tearing from an abrasion. "Al said, 'She's just all choked up over the witness protection bill.' "

Klobuchar added there were different approaches to building relationships across the aisle. "He charts his own course there and I've done my own," she said. "In different ways, I think."

* * *

On March 3, Franken shared a chuckle with Lugar before asking for support on a school lunch amendment. He then walked back over to the Democratic side of the aisle, swallowed a white pill from a red jar, and cracked up his aide by mockingly pounding his desk. Franken drifted across the aisle to the Republicans and said something to Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that made the minority leader chuckle. Returning to his desk, he sat next to Klobuchar. Alaska's newly elected Democrat, Mark Begich, joined the Minnesotans and offered some Senate humor about how easy it was to support the amendment up for vote because it had the wide support of the Democratic base.

"I'm for seniors!" Begich told Franken.

"I'm for disabled veterans!" Franken responded.

Begich then departed and left Franken and Klobuchar alone. She nervously jiggled her BlackBerry in her hand, stared ahead, and talked a blue streak. While he listened, Franken also stared ahead, bit his thumb and picked at his palm. Then he interjected something. Klobuchar laughed.

"That's funny," she said.

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