By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- As Washington ponders Al Franken's role as comedian or statesman, the Senate's newest member revealed another side of his persona today: He's a hugger.
Moments after Franken was sworn in as Minnesota's Democratic junior senator, he gave a big bear hug to Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry (himself not much of a public hugger), followed by hearty embraces of Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer of California, Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Amy Klobuchar, who has been carrying the load for Minnesota alone during the months of fighting over the seat.
Franken was declared the winner by the Minnesota Supreme Court last week, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman conceded, and Franken formally took the oath of office this afternoon.
As fans in the visitors' gallery cheered, Franken pumped his fist in victory, still holding the Bible he used for his swearing-in.
"There are people who see Al Franken in a very narrow concept, and it's understandable,'' since Franken gained fame as a comedian and radio talk-show host, said Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois. "But there's a lot more to this person. He's a very bright person. He's very well-informed.''
"Many expect that every time Al opens his mouth, it's going to be a comedy routine -- it's not,'' Durbin added.
Franken won plum assignments on the Senate Judiciary, Aging, and Health committees. Franken will not officially join the latter panel, however, until after it finishes work writing the healthcare overhaul bill.
Durbin noted that the committee is considering hundreds of amendments Franken had not participated in debating; a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, added that it would be unfair to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who has been working on the panel temporarily, to replace him with Franken during a time of such intense legislative activity.
Franken brings the Democratic caucus's count to 60 -- the number needed to stop filibusters. But since senators rarely vote in party lockstep -- especially on non-procedural votes -- the Democratic leadership's agenda is not assured passage.
"Most senators aren't sheep. They didn't come here to be told what to do by someone else,'' said Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana.
UPDATE: Franken, himself, has played down the 60th vote, saying he'll represent practical Minnesotans and not automatically back the Democratic leadership.
But the National Republican Senatorial Committee wasted no time posting a web video warning of unfettered Democratic power.
"With 60 senators, Democrats have total control. No checks, no balances," it says on screen, over images of a fist-pumping Franken.
"They own everything, and have no one to blame now," it says on screen at the end.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.