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Brown's independence could face Senate test

Vice President Joe Biden, right, prepares to reenacts the swearing in of Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., left, as Brown's wife Gail Huff, center, holds the family bibles, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010, in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington. Vice President Joe Biden, right, prepares to reenacts the swearing in of Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., left, as Brown's wife Gail Huff, center, holds the family bibles, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010, in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
By Andrew Miga
Associated Press Writer / February 5, 2010

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WASHINGTON—Scott Brown says he's a different kind of Republican, a centrist willing to work with Senate Democrats to fix health care and the ailing economy.

But his independent bent is likely to be sorely tested in a bitterly divided Senate where party loyalty is often at a premium.

As it is, Brown was sworn in Thursday a week earlier than he had planned. He spent his earliest minutes as a senator facing questions on whether he will stick with the GOP in the partisan fight over President Barack Obama's choice of a union attorney, Craig Becker, for a top labor job.

Brown tried to maintain a middle-of-the-road posture. "I'm going to look at everybody's qualifications and make my own decision," he said.

Brown can expect more tough balancing acts like that as he seeks to put his own stamp on a Senate seat held for nearly a half-century by the late liberal lion Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. For New England Republicans in Congress, whose ranks have thinned in recent years, it is the only way to survive.

Just ask Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Their independent ways and support for measures such as Obama's economic stimulus have stoked sharp criticism from some conservatives.

"He's clearly independent-minded and I cannot wait to get him here," Collins said. "I think this is going to be a terrific development for our party."

Or ask Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent and former Democrat whose strong support for Republican John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign had Democrats fuming. It nearly cost Lieberman a key committee chairmanship.

"It won't always be easy because sometimes when you're independent, you make people on all sides unhappy," Lieberman said.

Republicans are aglow over the fact that Brown, a 50-year-old, little-known state senator, captured Kennedy's old seat last month in a stunning upset over Democrat Martha Coakley that ended the Democrats' supermajority and gave Republicans the 41 votes they could use to block Obama's agenda. Brown won with a "big tent" coalition of supporters, including backers of the Tea Party protest movement.

Party leaders have greeted Brown with open arms. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, praised Brown for backing lower taxes, smaller government and strong national security. The party's conservative base, however, has clashed with GOP leaders over party litmus tests and whether there's room for moderates, who often are mocked by conservative bloggers as RINOs -- Republicans in Name Only.

"The problem for (Brown) is the Republican Party that will welcome him in Washington is the Republican Party that will prevent him from getting re-elected in Massachusetts in a couple of years," said Wendy Schiller, a Brown University political science professor. "If he goes into that party and he toes the line with that party, he can't get re-elected."

On the way to his win, Brown was careful not to refer to himself as a Republican too often in Massachusetts, where more than half the voters are not connected to a party. Since winning his seat, Brown has struck a more conciliatory tone on Obama's health care overhaul, too.

Snowe and Collins have turned their moderate brand of politics into popularity in Maine, where pragmatism often takes a back seat to partisanship with voters.

Snowe was an important player last year as the health care bill was crafted, working with Democrats. Collins played a prominent role helping Democrats pass the economic stimulus, but only after working to scale back costs.

"If he wants to have a future in Massachusetts politics, Brown has to live up to being a New England Republican -- fiscally conservative, socially moderate, independent-minded," said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor.

"Is Obama going to try to craft some room for himself in the center?" Scala said. "If so, Brown might be something of an ally."