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Franken Comes to Washington

No Time to Waste for Rookie

After waiting eight long months for final confirmation that he defeated former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Sen.-elect Al Franken (D) will have no time to spare as he seeks to get up to speed this week on two of the biggest debates facing the chamber.

With a seat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Franken has already missed two weeks of the panel’s markup of a sweeping health care reform bill. And while his fellow Judiciary Committee members have had more than a month to peruse the thousands of decisions rendered by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, Franken’s aides will have just two weeks to get him ready for the committee’s hearings, which are set to begin July 13.

“I have staff in place,— Franken told reporters after the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled last week that Franken had indeed bested Coleman. “I can hit the ground, if not running, trotting.—

Franken, who last week declined most media requests besides home-state press, will likely be sworn in as the 100th Senator midday Tuesday, one senior Senate Democratic aide confirmed. He is taking over Coleman’s old office in the Hart Senate Office Building.

Franken has been getting briefings on the HELP markup, for example, but acknowledged that not being part of the committee’s consideration will still put him at a disadvantage when he gets to D.C.

The most difficult part of joining the Senate midsession, Franken said last week, “really will be catching up. … I think that’s going to be the hardest part of the transition. But I guess the hardest part of any transition to a new job is the stuff you didn’t know would be the hardest part.—

While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to meet with Franken on Monday afternoon, Franken spokeswoman Jess McIntosh said her boss was planning on calling Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) over the Fourth of July weekend to talk about his committee duties. Dodd has been filling in for HELP Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has been absent while battling brain cancer.

Franken’s legislative staff also has already begun gathering the information he needs “to look carefully at Judge Sotomayor’s judicial record,— McIntosh said.

Franken has said he’s eager to join the health care debate, and McIntosh said his chief goal would be finding a plan that lowers costs for consumers. But Franken will probably find much to like in HELP’s recently released draft, which would create a public health insurance plan.

On his campaign Web site, Franken expressed some interest in a single-payer system backed by the government, but he acknowledges that “today’s political environment requires a creative and flexible approach to covering every American.—

Instead, he proposes requiring every state to cover all citizens, while allowing states to create their own methods for doing so.

McIntosh said Franken will wait until he gets to Washington and will look over all the plans, but that he would most likely favor anything that “fosters competition— with private health insurers — as both the HELP model and the still-incomplete proposal from the Senate Finance panel to create a nonprofit health insurance cooperative propose to do.

“He cares a lot more about getting it done than the mechanism by which it happens,— McIntosh said.

As for Sotomayor’s nomination, McIntosh said Franken “likes what he’s read about her— and “thinks she’s very much in the mainstream of American jurisprudence.—

On most issues, Franken has staked out a decidedly left-of-center position. A former union member himself, he supports “card check,— which would make it easier to form a union. He has proposed establishing paid maternity and paternity leave and extending the Family and Medical Leave Act to include more small businesses.

Besides HELP and Judiciary, Franken got his wish to sit on the Senate Indian Affairs panel, and he will be a member of the Aging Committee.

While the culture shock can be a lot to handle for most freshmen who have not held public office before, Franken has spent the past six months studying the Senate. McIntosh said that ever since the Minnesota canvassing board certified him the winner on Jan. 5, Franken spent the time waiting for Coleman’s court challenge to be resolved by “learning everything about the institution of the Senate.—

Because Franken was not able to attend the late November freshman orientation where most Members get the basics on how to set up their office, Franken schooled himself and asked for advice from fellow Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Senate staffers.

McIntosh said Franken also got valuable advice from Tamara Luzzatto, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s former Senate chief of staff. Luzzatto met with him to talk about “what it was like to come in [to the Senate] with a fair amount of celebrity.—

Franken, a former comedian, political satirist and actor, has said he hopes to mimic both Clinton and former basketball star and Sen. Bill Bradley’s (D-N.J.) low-key style in the Senate.

“Both came to the Senate with some celebrity and some skepticism from people on the Hill,— Franken told the Associated Press last week. “They both put their heads down and did the work and won over their colleagues by not running to the camera.—

While Franken will be learning the ropes, Republicans are planning a belated goodbye to Coleman, who served just one term in the Senate and ultimately lost to Franken by just 312 votes.

GOP leadership aides said it remains unclear whether Coleman will come to Washington next week to meet with his former colleagues or take care of any unfinished business. Although his official office has been shuttered for months, Coleman has regularly made trips to Washington since the November election to meet with members of his Conference and has attended several of their weekly policy luncheons.

However, one aide said it was almost certain that lawmakers would use floor time over the next several weeks to offer their farewells.

“It’s likely that Members will make tribute speeches over the next couple of weeks. Which is pretty standard for any departing member,— the aide said Thursday.

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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