Liberal Spat or Playing by the Rules? Franken Cuts Off Lieberman

Dec 18, 2009 12:42pm

ABC News’ Devin Dwyer reports:

It’s not something you normally see in the U.S. Senate, but yesterday afternoon a senator delivering remarks on the floor had his speech cut short.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who’s been a source frustration for many liberals in the health care overhaul negotiations, was curtly interrupted by Sen. Al Franken, D-Min., for exceeding a time limit and then denied an “additional moment” to wrap up his thought.   

“The Senator has spoken for 10 minutes,” said Franken, who was presiding over the chamber.

“I wonder if I could ask unanimous consent for just an additional moment,” Lieberman replied, seeming to expect his request would be honored. (Typically in the Senate – unlike the House – members may speak for as long as they wish on the matter under consideration.)

“Um, in my capacity as senator from Minnesota – I object,” Franken said, shrugging his shoulders.

Lieberman, clearly surprised, flashed a smile: “Really?… Oh, okay, I won’t take it personally,” he said.

Franken then consented to include the remainder of Lieberman’s statement in the record.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaking after Lieberman on the floor, expressed shock at what he’d just witnessed, saying ''I must say that I don't know what's happening here in this body but I think it's wrong.'' 

Several onlookers have speculated that at least some of liberals’ anger towards Lieberman’s stance on health care may have manifested itself in Franken’s rebuke.  Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post wonders if it was “payback, maybe” and the Associated Press described Lieberman as having been “shut down.”

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid denied those characterizations, telling Politico Franken’s objection was simply a matter of fairness and adherence to the rules set by the leadership.

“This is not a spat between Franken and Lieberman,” Franken friend and American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein told ABC News. “Anybody in the chair was told that when somebody goes over 10-minutes you object. It definitely was not anything personal, and you could see the facial expressions that Franken had: it was ‘sorry, this is what I’m supposed to do in the chair.’”

Ornstein, a long-time observer of Congress and politics, conceded however that such strict enforcement of time limits in Senate debate is very rare.

For his part, Lieberman has suggested he didn’t take the incident personally – perhaps at least partly because of the longtime friendship he and Franken have shared.

The two men were seen laughing about the incident on the Senate floor several hours later.

Years before Lieberman was selected as Al Gore’s running mate for the 2000 presidential election and the Senate was a twinkle in Franken’s eye, Franken wrote a satirical novel about his imaginary presidential campaign called “Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency.”   In the book, Lieberman is a character who goes on to have a historic presidency.

No one from Sen. Franken's office could be reached by ABC News for comment as voicemail boxes at both his Washington, D.C. and Minnesota offices were full. Sen. Lieberman's office line had a busy signal in several attempts to reach staff for comment.

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