THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
A FISCAL SHOWDOWN

Brown maintains typical silence on budget fight

He won’t say which cuts he backs, opposes

Scott Brown spoke yesterday at the groundbreaking for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. Scott Brown spoke yesterday at the groundbreaking for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / April 9, 2011

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WASHINGTON — After delivering remarks at the dedication of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston yesterday, Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts excused himself to catch a flight: He had to go back “to do the people’s business’’ in Washington, referring with some understatement to the congressional budget fight that threatened to close the federal government.

As is often his style, Brown did not get into detail about his positions on the key issues at stake in the budget fight. And back in the Capitol yesterday, he continued to rebuff requests from the Globe for interviews to provide additional definition to his views on the impasse, including which cuts he supports and which cuts he opposes.

Brown, a Republican from a liberal state, often does not reveal a position on an issue until very soon before he casts a vote. And on the budget standoff, tactical straddling has defined his approach. After voting in favor of deep budget cuts passed by the Republican majority in the US House, he has in subsequent weeks distanced himself from some of those cuts, including eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood and home-heating oil assistance. He has also described unspecified elements of the Republican budget he approved as “irresponsible.’’

“Vagueness has a high degree of functionality,’’ said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. “To the degree that he can get away with it, it’s a good strategy to convey to hard-core Republicans that he’s strict on budget issues while conveying to moderates that he shares their concern.’’

Brown’s approach has earned him criticism from the political left and right. Brown political adviser Eric Fehrnstrom rejected the idea that the senator is avoiding public stands on issues.

“Senator Brown was pretty clear that he favored the budget number coming out of the House, even as he disagreed with some of the specific cuts,’’ Fehrnstrom wrote in an e-mail. “He’s a fiscal conservative who wants to put our nation on the path to fiscal responsibility, and he’s working with members of both parties to achieve that goal.

“The critics taking partisan political shots care more about the next election than our very real fiscal crisis. It’s sad to see them playing politics when both parties should be working together to head off financial disaster.’’

House Republicans want to deny federal health grants and contracts to Planned Parenthood, the women’s health care provider, on the grounds that the agency also performs abortions; it is a key dispute in the current budget fight. Republican and Democratic budget negotiators have also wrangled over policy riders regarding environmental regulations.

Brown’s office did not respond to several messages yesterday asking for an interview on the specifics of the budget fight and how he viewed the House’s tactics.

“Can we have some consistency, senator?’’ Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, said in an interview. “Stop worrying about reelection and start worrying about what’s going to be left of our country’’ if the national debt is not addressed.

To the frustration of urban leaders in Massachusetts, Brown has declined to say if he is for or against dramatic cuts proposed to federal block grants, which pay for housing and transportation projects in cities and towns. He has publicly opposed a federal government shutdown but also voted this week for a bill to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to regulate greenhouse gases, strengthening House Speaker John Boehner’s hand on that issue in the budget negotiations.

While not mentioning Brown in a floor speech yesterday, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts blasted Republican “voices of moderation and common sense’’ who he said are not fully participating in the debate.

“All the voices on the other side of the aisle whom these institutions [of government] could always count on to stand up and lead aren’t leading, they’re silent,’’ said Kerry, a Democrat.

Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, signaled that Democrats will try to make Brown’s decision-making style an issue in his 2012 reelection campaign.

“Scott Brown never shows any leadership on these issues until he can tell which way the wind is blowing,’’ he said.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.