Sen. Al Franken talks to the AJW about the debt ceiling, Israel and the late Sen. Wellstone


The New York Times on Monday devoted a half page in its national section to the ongoing Minnesota government shutdown. At the bottom of the first column, reporter Monica Davey compared the situation in Minnesota — “the broadest shutdown in state history entering its second full week with no sign of a compromise on the horizon” — with the standoff in Washington, where President Obama and Republican leaders in Congress are locked in a tussle over raising the federal debt ceiling, and cutting spending as part of a deal.

The state and federal situations differ, the Times story noted; “but Minnesota’s essential impasse sounds familiar: Republican lawmakers who control [the Legislature] want to rein in state spending and have rejected calls from Mark Dayton the Democratic governor, to raise income taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans.”

Sen. Al Franken, left: It’s a very dangerous game of chicken that we are playing here in Washington.

Sen. Al Franken, in his first interview with the American Jewish World since he took office two years ago, acknowledged the “tremendous parallels” between the debates in Minnesota and Washington.

Speaking by telephone on Monday from his office in the Capitol, Franken said that the nation is “faced with a potentially horrific crisis if we default on our debt; we just can’t do that. If we defaulted on our debt, it would downgrade our [Treasury bonds]; it would raise the interest rates at which we borrow at, which means that for every one percent increase in the cost of our bonds, it would cost [an additional] $1.3 trillion over 10 years to pay the debt that we owe.”

He decried the Republican tactic of putting a federal financial default on the table.

“It’s a very dangerous game of chicken that we are playing here in Washington; and in Minnesota, of course, there are lives being affected right now. This is playing with the full faith and credit of the United States government.” Franken mentioned that the Minnesota government shutdown already has led to a downgrading of the state’s credit rating.

AJW readers likely recall that Franken took office eight months after the 2008 elections, following a lengthy recount and legal challenge by Republican incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman. He emerged with a winning margin of 312 votes out of nearly 3 million votes cast — one of the great cliffhanger elections in Minnesota history.

Since taking office, Franken has endeavored to be a work horse rather than a show horse, after a career as a comedy writer for Saturday Night Live, and author of best-selling political satires, including Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.

The St. Louis Park native started considering a run for the Senate seat held by his friend, Sen. Paul Wellstone — who died in a airplane crash, along with his wife, Sheila, daughter, Marcia, and four others, on Oct. 25, 2002 — not long after Coleman’s victory in the 2002 Senate race.

“He’s always an inspiration to me,” Franken said, regarding Wellstone’s legacy. “Whenever I think of Paul, I’m very humbled to have the same seat that he held, that Hubert Humphrey held, that Walter Mondale held. Of course, the seat belongs to the people of Minnesota, and my job is to work every day to improve people’s lives.”

Returning to the hot topic du jour, the debt ceiling/budget debate, Franken responded to a question about how the dispute will be resolved, given the changed political landscape after the 2010 elections, which ushered in a wave of Tea Party-sympathizing Republicans.

“I hope there are enough responsible members of the Rep. Party who understand… the special role of the dollar and of the Treasury note in our global economy, and how fraught with peril not raising the debt ceiling would be,” said Franken.

“I think they’re acting irresponsibly,” the senator added, while acknowledging that he understands their thinking: “They’re saying, ‘This is our chance to force the other side to make real concessions on spending,’” However, he repeated the charge of Republican fecklessness in promulgating a U.S. government debt default.

In the area of foreign affairs, Franken said that he was puzzled by the negative reaction from some Jewish quarters, following President Obama’s declaration that he would promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal based on the 1967 lines with mutually-agreed upon land swaps. He noted that the Obama administration’s position did not strike him as “so controversial,” given the proviso that Israel and the Palestinians would have to agree to a final demarcation of borders.

And Franken, who has traveled as a senator to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to Vietnam and Laos (on behalf of his Hmong constituents), said, “My next official trip will be to Israel… that’s where I’m going next.”

An expanded version of this story will appear in the July 22 print edition of the American Jewish World.