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Can Franken boost Dems on key issues?

By
July 2, 2009

The jokes about Minnesota’s prolonged recount can finally stop, just in time for Democrats to secure a reliable vote from a former funny man.

Al Franken is on his way to Washington and the comedian-turned-senator-elect will bring with him a likely yes vote on key legislation, including two of President Barack Obama’s top priorities — health care and climate change.

Within minutes of a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that ended the state’s eight-month recount in Franken’s favor, Democrats expressed hope that Franken’s arrival will boost their legislative causes. Health care was an issue that Obama emphasized in his statement welcoming Franken, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Franken’s Democratic colleague from Minnesota, said Franken told her that it’s a priority for him.

"He’s ready to get started immediately and wants to dive into health care reform in particular," she said.

Franken was noncommittal in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, but he talked at length about the need for "patient-centered health care and not profit-centered health care," a view that suggests support for Obama’s approach.

Franken is not a cure-all for Senate gridlock. Democrats are quick to note that two members, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., are ailing and have not been in the chamber for weeks, depriving them of two critical votes. His arrival also doesn’t change the fact that the Democratic majority is built on an ideologically diverse caucus where centrists hold key committee chairmanships.

That said, in the ever-tangled Senate, Democrats will enjoy the simplicity of fairly straightforward support. Franken is expected to pursue a seat on one of the two Senate committees that are handling health care legislation, and he has expressed interest in the Senate’s Judiciary Committee.

On energy policy, Franken told the AP on Wednesday that he wants to see climate legislation before committing, but he added that he supports legislation that limits greenhouse gases and penalizes companies that exceed set emission limits.

For Democrats, that hints at a trifecta of key yes votes on those two issues and the confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, even though Franken has not said outright that he will support Sotomayor.

Labor unions are also cheering Franken’s arrival. During his campaign, Franken voiced strong support for a top priority of organized labor, a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the lead Democrat working on a compromise version of the bill, has predicted it would get a vote in the Senate once Franken was seated.

Franken could prove nettlesome to Democrats looking for a consensus on some issues. Campaigning in Minnesota, Franken lampooned the Senate-approved bank bailout. It’s unclear where he will fall in Democrats’ efforts to reform the banking industry.

Republicans also see opportunity in Franken’s high profile.

"He has a much higher bar to reach when it comes to positioning himself as someone who’s serious about policy," said GOP strategist Kevin Madden. "That’s unfortunate for him and I think it probably provides an opportunity for Republicans to hammer away at the caricature of him in a way that could hamstring congressional Democrats."

Still, Democrats are much happier to have him than to not.

"Every vote is going to help," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "Every day he’s here is another vote for comprehensive health care and a clean energy revolution."

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Associated Press writers Sam Hananel in Washington and Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., contributed to this report.