Al Franken, the newest member of the Senate who this month gave Democrats their 60th seat in the upper chamber, made his debut in high-profile Senate business today, in front of national television cameras at Sonia Sotomayor's first confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Franken is a member.
As the most junior senator in the room, he spoke last among the committee's 18 members, taking his turn at the back of the line as senators offered their opening remarks.
As many expected, Franken acknowledged his newness to the Senate, almost prostrating himself before the committee's veteran members, saying he has much to learn, and paying tribute to Sen. Ted Kennedy.
"I am truly humbled to join the Judiciary Committee," Franken said, calling Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) "sir" in thanking Leahy for "your warm welcome and the consideration that you have given me."
He paid respect to Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), promising to work with Republicans. "I look forward to working over the years with you and my other Republican colleagues in the Senate on improving the lives of all Americans," Franken said, citing former Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), who died in a plane crash in 2002, as an example of the bipartisanship he'll strive for.
And he made multiple references to Kennedy, the ailing Democratic hero: "I have watched at least part of every Supreme Court confirmation hearing since they've been televised, and I would note that this is the first hearing that Sen. Kennedy has not attended since 1965." Franken later said, "We all miss his presence."
Franken's introduction was about what political analysts had predicted: careful to be taken seriously, genuflecting before the gravity of the upper chamber and its veterans, expressing awe at his new responsibilities, and taking an earnest tone in addressing Sotomayor.
"As most of you know, this is my fifth day in office," Franken said. "That may mean I am the most junior senator, but it also means I am the senator who most recently took the oath of office."
"Last Tuesday I swore to uphold and defend the Constitution," Franken said. "I take this oath very seriously as we consider your [Sotomayor's] nomination."
There wasn't much politics in Franken's remarks. Rather than subtly or openly engaging the conservative talking points, Fanken said he hopes to learn from Sotomayor, repeating that point several times.
He did, however, criticize the current Court and bring up abortion.
"I am wary of judicial acticism, and I support judicial restraint," Franken said. "Looking at recent decisions on voting rights, campaign finance reform, and other topics...there are ominous signs that judicial activism may have been on the rise in the last few years."
Franken was careful to demonstrate how seriously he takes the confirmation process. It was in the context of the Court's importance that he brought up abortion: "It is the last place a woman can go to protect her health and reproductive rights," he said.
So what do we know about Al Franken that we didn't know before the hearing? Not much. His remarks were largely what analysts had expected. He offered his own take on judicial activism and the current court, but nothing particularly shocking. Most notably, he comported himself with deference and a degree of obsequity that observers had anticipated.