Can comity and comedy coexist in the U.S. Senate? This important question presented itself Thursday during the debate over health care. Speaking on the floor of the Senate, Joe Lieberman asked to extend his remarks beyond the 10 minutes he'd been allotted. In a body known for speechmaking, this is like requesting air. It's the kind of request normally acceded to "without objection." But Al Franken, the freshman senator from Minnesota, sitting in as presiding officer of the Senate, told the four-term senator from Connecticut that he could not. "In my capacity as senator from Minnesota, I object," said Franken. Despite his background as a former cast member of Saturday Night Live, Franken was being serious. He did, however, give the universal palms-up gesture, suggesting the matter was out of his hands.
This became a thing.
John McCain, who built a reputation on breaking ranks, was outraged at the breach. "I've been around here 20-some years. First time I've ever seen a member denied an extra minute or two to finish his remarks," he said. "I just haven't seen it before myself. And I don't like it. And I think it harms the comity of the Senate not to allow one of our members at least a minute." (McCain, it turns out was forgetting his own effort, in 2002, to do exactly what Franken was doing.)
For liberals, this little episode was wonderful. Many have wanted to do themselves—perhaps with a sock—what Franken did to Lieberman. "Wielding Gavel, Franken Shuts Lieberman Up," read the headline on the Huffington Post.
And in fact one of the particulars in the liberal case against Lieberman was a breach of comity. During the presidential campaign he said that his colleague, Sen. Barack Obama, had not always put his country first. This was not exactly a breach of comity, because he didn't say it on the Senate floor. But it surely was against the spirit of the place.
Pundits also loved the episode, which was quickly elevated to an "altercation." Some heralded Franken for his bold move. Others were more sympathetic to Lieberman.
Comity is the special sauce of the Senate. It's what makes everyone so darn nice to one another in public. Even when they're cursing each other privately, senators show excessive deference in on the Senate floor, referring to all their colleagues as "gentlemen" or "gentlewomen" and constantly asking one another to yield rather than just interrupting. Even off the floor, if speaking publicly, a senator is likely to refer to a colleague as "a friend." I once asked a senator once what he really meant when he called a colleague a "good friend." He answered: "Not a thing."
There have, of course been famous exceptions. Dick Cheney, who as vice president was also president of the Senate, told Patrick Leahy to f--k himself, which qualifies as a breach of comity, to say nothing of biology. In 1902, Benjamin Tillman physically attacked John McClaurin in a dispute over a treaty to annex the Philippines. This caused the Senate to define comity: "No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator," and "No Senator in debate shall refer offensively to any State of the Union."
That Franken (a proud liberal) and Lieberman (a proud vexer of liberals) would have this moment was irresistible fodder for bloggers and cable shows. But it was really just a chance occurrence. Franken wasn't acting on his own—he was just following orders. Majority Leader Harry Reid had requested strict time-keeping by all freshmen presiding in the Senate president's chair (a chore all newcomers must perform). Franken was not the only one who denied a senator a chance to extend his remarks Thursday, as Michigan's Carl Levin pointed out. Still, that doesn't mean that Franken's old colleagues at Saturday Night Live won't use the episode to have some fun at his—and Lieberman's—expense. Failing to do so would be a breach of comedy.