HENRY C. JACKSON
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -Just weeks into his Senate term, Al Franken's portfolio compares favorably to any of the Senate's freshman members. He loves policy. He has signed on as co-sponsor to a half dozen bills, asked thoughtful questions of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, and immersed himself in a thorny debate over health care reform.
Before he was seated, Franken and his aidesintoned he would take a path well-trod by already-famous Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama before him. The idea is to work hard, pick a few issues and do your best to drown your celebrity by focusing on the detail of day-to-day work in the Senate.
There is nothing flashy about Franken's first legislative victory. The Service Dog Veterans Act, which Franken introduced with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., will set up a pilot program with Department of Veterans Affairs to pair service dogs with wounded veterans.
"He sought me out and I was happy to work with him," Isakson said of Franken. "He'd done his homework, he was very informed. It was obvious he was trying to hit the ground running."
Isakson said he came away impressed.
"All of us know in the Senate your reputation is the sum of all the days you serve, not just one event, but he appears to be trying very hard."
Franken's committee assignments, including seats on the Judiciary Committee and on the Senate Health, Education, Labor&Pensions panel, have ensured that he is involved with two of Washington's most pressing matters.
During the Sotomayor hearings, Franken said he did not particularly enjoy being on camera, but was happy he was able to ask illuminating questions to the judge. He brimmed with pride when he discussed praise from Dahlia Lithwick, a legal writer for Slate magazine, who praised his performance.
"The wonkiest wonk in all of wonkdom," he said, of Lithwick.
Franken took particular pride in a small, almost procedural victory. During his questioning Franken said he was able to get Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee to acknowledge there are so-called conservative "activist judges" as well as liberals.
"I thought that was a victory," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Every conservative would say I want someone who's not a judicial activist and won't make law from the bench but that's exactly what Justice Thomas is doing. So I was proud of that."
Democrats have appreciated Franken's ability to get up to speed quickly on the issues.
"He really understands the sort of workings of government and how policy is developed and the effect it has," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is chairman of the health, education, labor and pensions committee. "This is not some passing fancy of his. This is something he's been intellectualizing on and studying for many, many years."
Harkin said that though Franken did not join the HELP Committee before it finished its markup, he has been a "quick study" and was doing what he could to build consensus on the issue. Though some Republicans threatened to go to war if Franken was seated, Harkin said he's seen Franken quietly chatting up Republicans in the Senate's well.
"He's a very friendly guy and very outgoing," Harkin said. "He's an easy guy to get to know."
Franken told the AP he was proud of the fact that Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was one of the first senators of either party to greet him after he was sworn in. He said he plans to work with Republicans as often as he can on as many issues as he can.
Democrats, meanwhile, quietly appreciate Franken's decision to avoid grabbing the spotlight. Apart from a few encounters coming on and off the Senate floor, Franken has largely avoided national media and broadcast outlets, granting interviews to media with a Minnesota focus. On national issues he has deferred to his Senate elders.
If you listen to Franken, there's plenty of other things he can be doing besides talking.
"I've got a lot of work to do," he told the AP. "I've got to get up to speed very, very quickly, so I'm focused on that."