Franken v. Lieberman: Too good a story to check out


When Sen. Al Franken denied Sen. Joe Lieberman's request for unanimous consent to speak beyond his allotted 10 minutes during floor debate yesterday, there was something in it for everyone.

Conservatives echoed Sen. John McCain's claim that the denial was unprecedented and outrageous. Many liberals frustrated by Lieberman's opposition to health care reform (among a lengthy list of other grievances) enjoyed what they saw as Franken "shutting down" their nemesis. And much of the media went along with the framing, themselves lusting for some political bloodsport.

Problem was, it wasn't true. In fact, it was clear from the exchange itself that it wasn't true. But everyone reacted to an abbreviated version of the exchange.

As the exchange makes clear, when McCain responded to Franken's objection by angrily denouncing the supposedly-unprecedented action, Sen. Carl Levin immediately pointed out that, in fact, an identical denial had occured earlier in the day, and that the purpose was simply to keep debate moving.

Indeed, pretty much everybody involved has made clear it was really no big deal. (Except for McCain, but we'll come back to him.)

Here's Franken:

"I agreed with every word he said for the entire 10 minutes, and I think he probably only had maybe 30 seconds left," he said. "He didn't take it personally at all."

Franken says Majority leader Harry Reid ordered all senators who presided today to keep speeches to their ten minute limits and not grant any extensions.

"Usually you're allowed to do this and, just, today we were told not to let it happen because there's been some attempt to string out the debate," Franken said. "So, I really just had no choice."

And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office agreed. Minneapolis Star Tribune correspondent Eric Roper reported on December 17:

A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid said that Franken was merely adhering to a request from Reid to strictly enforce the rules because the Senate is already in session practically 'round the clock.' "

Politico reported on December 18 that Reid spokesman Jim Manley stated of Reid's request, "We did that to maintain order and that no senator had an unfair advantage over another in terms of speaking. ... It was a simple request of the leader and Sen. Franken was adhering to the request of his leadership."

And Lieberman:

Lieberman laughed off the incident as much ado about nothing when he returned to the chamber a couple of hours later. He said that Franken apparently was following procedures for sticking to time limits that had been handed down by Senate leaders. Franken had made a good-natured gesture with his hands, Lieberman said, "as if to say 'There's nothing I can do'."

And indeed, earlier in the day, when Sen. John Cornyn asked for more time for his speech, the presiding officer, Sen. Mark Bevich said virtually the same thing:

"In my capacity as a Senator from Alaska, I object."

But the facts didn't get in the way of the media's -- and the right-wing's -- efforts to paint Franken as a vindictive partisan.

The right-wing reaction was predictable. Blogger Ann Althouse called it a "dick move" and suggested a boycott of Minnesota. Michelle Malkin accused "nutroots hero Al Franken" of "a little snit fit against Lieberman." Red State's James Richardson accused Franken of "breaking from the Senate's long-held standards of collegiality."

But the overwhelming certainty of the Beltway crowd was stunning.

On Hardball Thursday, Chris Matthews was shocked (accessed from Nexis):

I've never seen that...Working on the Hill, following the Hill, I've never seen a senator cut short on a -- you know, a casual request for an extra minute to continue speaking in a Senate that's allowed to speak forever. Let's face it, we understand you can speak forever in the Senate. Does that show how hot things are getting or what?

Remember, the same thing had happened earlier in the day. And that previous occurrence was mentioned by Levin during the Franken/Lieberman/McCain exchange. And yet Matthews kept insisting it was unique, coming back to it again and again. Later in the show, Matthews hosted Joan Walsh and Melinda Henneberger -- and all agreed it was a "direct shot" at Lieberman.

Henneberger insisted (from Nexis):

Franken looked a little rude, and it was no coincidence that he was the first one to have the clock called on him, given that I'm sure Franken wanted to come across the desk and kill him, maybe not so much.

But Lieberman wasn't the "first one to have the clock called on him." As Carl Levin made clear. Where on earth did Henneberger get the idea that he was? She obviously hadn't checked, so why on earth would she feel comfortable making such an assertion?

Over on CNN's Situation Room, senior political analyst David Gergen had an entirely erroneous analysis (from Nexis):

Yes, John McCain is scolding him, scolding Al Franken. I think that Al Franken went beyond the traditions of the Senate. There is normally -- it is a club after all in the eyes of the traditionalists, and this is very personal.

Joe Lieberman said I don't take it personally, but in fact, it was intended to be personal, and I think it reflects the frustration, the anger, the boiling resentments, and a sense among many in the Senate that maybe this thing is going to slip away from them.

Friday morning, the media continued to pile on Franken.

On Morning Joe, Lawrence O'Donnell declared "I've never seen [this] before. I spent a lot of years on the Senate floor. I did not know that the presiding officer could do that. I thought only a member up in the body could object. But it turns out you can." David Gregory went yammering on about Franken trying to "make a mark" and being a "liberal Senator" who dislikes Lieberman and "working the levers of power."

And then this exchange:

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: If you ask the Franken folks, they say this wasn't a dis. They were trying to enforce the strict time rules because they are trying to jam so much in, trying to get the health care bill to the floor.

JOE SCARBOROUGH: Savannah, if that were the case, why would he say 'As my capacity of Senator from Minnesota'?

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL: I think he didn't want to do it as the presiding officer. ... It's shocking, it's never happened before.

Seriously, that wasn't even the first time it had happened yesterday. And the previous time, when Begich told Cornyn his time was up, he used the exact same wording. Because that's the wording they had been told to use.

Meanwhile, over at Fox & Friends, host Brian Kilmeade called Franken "an angry clown. He's a liberal who's mad at Joe Lieberman" and said Franken "needs to be chastised by Senator Reid. ... He needs somebody in his own party that has power over him to say, 'Al, you're embarrassing us.'" Keep in mind: Franken was acting on direction from Reid!

Kilmeade's co-host Steve Doocy weighed in by calling Franken "uncivil" and "not very polite" -- which, again, is news to Lieberman, who noted that Franken had been good-natured about it.

And Gretchen Carlson suggested Franken was part of a "trend" of "newbie politicians that don't know exactly the protocol," adding, "You have the senior senator John McCain saying I've never seen this happen before, and the freshman senator Al Franken maybe not knowing how the rules are played."

Remember: The "senior senator John McCain" was wrong; it had happened just a few hours earlier. And the "freshman senator Al Franken" was doing exactly what leadership had told all presiding officers to do.

Not only was McCain wrong about what happened yesterday, his comments were entirely hypocritical. As Think Progress' Faiz Shakir notes, McCain himself objected to Sen. Mark Dayton's request for an additional 30 seconds to finish remarks during the 2002 Iraq war debate.

And yet on Friday, McCain was still making the same false and hypocritical claim and the media were airing his comments without checking them out. (While Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity were still pushing the storyline on their afternoon radio shows.)

The "story" -- if there is one -- of yesterday's exchange should have been that McCain was wrong, and a hypocrite, in his angry denunciation of Franken's objection.

Lazy journalism is bad.

Lazy journalism practiced by D.C. political analysts who insist they know what they're talking about is even worse.

Posted In
Government, The Senate
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