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Brown’s high hopes ran into Senate reality

Freshman senator has carved independent course

By Christopher Rowland and Bobby Caina Calvan
Globe Staff / May 20, 2012
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One in a series of occasional articles looking at the careers and records of the Massachusetts candidates for US Senate.

WASHINGTON - Scott Brown’s frustration and dismay boiled over one September night, in a rambling speech on the Senate floor.

Suffering from what he said was a bout of pneumonia and sipping from a glass of water, the Massachusetts Republican launched into an unfiltered tirade, a diatribe against the Democrats in power, against his critics, against partisan squabbling, against gridlock.

Judging from his biting, sometimes sarcastic outburst, Brown’s hope to become a catalyst for change in Washington had waned - just seven months after he exploded on the political scene in 2010.

“It’s like we don’t talk anymore,’’ Brown shook his head, almost pleading with the few other senators on the floor, mostly Democrats. “We’re just filing bills with no hopes of them passing.’’

Some sort of letdown was probably inevitable.

Brown arrived as a superstar after roaring into office in a special election to replace the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. But even as he soaked up waves of media attention, Brown and his pickup truck revolution ran headlong into reality - getting things done in Washington, especially as a freshman of the minority party, is maddeningly hard.

He has discovered in his first two years in office that his considerable political charms and carefully cultivated everyman image - the ingredients for his electoral success in the Bay State - have not always helped him navigate a clubby Senate chamber that is riven by partisan divides, stocked with outsized egos, and operates under Byzantine rules and traditions.

“He’s impatient, because he wants to get things done,’’ said Maine’s Olympia Snowe, one of the few Republican moderates in the Senate who, like Brown, often votes with Democrats. “He walked into this spotlight almost immediately.’’

Shunning labels, Brown arrived in the capital promising to be a “Scott Brown Republican,’’ someone guided by his own star, and he has, in fact, demonstrated ideological flexibility on some issues.

He has, for example, angered Tea Party supporters, who gave him strong backing in his special election, by veering to the middle in advance of his tough reelection fight this year against Democrat Elizabeth Warren.

But attempting to build a centrist record has required an almost weekly high-wire act, balancing the relatively liberal sentiments of Massachusetts voters against the demands of increasingly conservative Republican leaders in the Senate.

“Scott had a tight rope to walk,’’ said Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who owes his own crowning achievement - passage of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul - to Brown’s willingness to cross the aisle. “He’s walked it successfully. His dilemma is the Republican Party has become so right wing it will be harder for him to have an impact.’’

Whereas other freshman senators have six years to adjust to Washington before running for reelection, Brown had just two to make his name and reputation. Brown has boasted in his reelection campaign that he voted with the GOP leadership just 54 percent of the time - proof, he says, of his moderate leanings. That is based on a Congressional Quarterly analysis that includes dozens of amendments that had no chance of passing. On the most important, news-generating votes since he arrived in office, Brown joined GOP leaders 76 percent of the time, according to an analysis by Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.

Brown has consistently opposed all tax increases, whether on the rich, corporations, or anyone else. He has voted with Republicans on greenhouse gas regulation, energy production, and insurance coverage for contraception.

Yet, on other issues, he has confounded those who sought to gain his support or thought they could count on it, often waiting until the last moment before taking a final - sometimes surprising - stand.

He initially voted against Wall Street financial reforms in spring 2010, then broke with Republicans and cast the pivotal vote in favor of the Dodd-Frank overhaul in July. At the end of another lengthy period of consideration, Brown decided to abandon his earlier opposition and support repeal of the military’s ban on gay service members. By the time he weighed in, passage had already been assured.

Such twists have established Brown as perhaps the most unpredictable member of the Senate.

In a case of zigging when other moderate senators zagged, Brown joined the GOP in opposition to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, a home-state nominee. Brown had introduced Kagan at the start of her confirmation hearings as a “brilliant woman.’’

After a cordial one-on-one meeting with Kagan, he declared himself satisfied with her explanations of why, as Harvard Law School dean, she agreed to restrict campus access for military recruiters. But just hours before the vote he announced he would vote against her. He refused to be interviewed about his stance, instead simply issuing a statement echoing GOP talking points about her lack of courtroom experience.

His frequent refusal to discuss his positions or provide deeper explanations of his thinking have led to a sometimes testy relationship with the Capitol Hill press. Brown opted not to be interviewed for this story. Approached in the Capitol to discuss his record, he dismissed questions and answered with generalities.

“When I see a problem, I’m going to work to get things done,’’ he said. “I’ll let my record certainly speak on its own.’’

Democrats maintain Brown is more conservative than he claims and is less a true bipartisan figure than a political opportunist. But some admirers say his unpredictable ways are really tactical - a way to make his vote count for more.

“Not being taken for granted by either side puts his state in a valuable position, by virtue of being a sought-after player in the time leading up to debates,’’ said David Griswold, who served as chief of staff for both the late Rhode Island Republican Senator John Chafee, and his son, Lincoln, who also held the Ocean State’s Senate seat and is now its independent governor.

Despite his role in the center of partisan storms, Brown often presents a cool, laid-back demeanor - the affable, athletic senator who lopes down the marble halls of the Senate, sometimes appearing puzzled over all the fuss. Early-morning workouts in the Senate gym, often with Senator John Thune of South Dakota, leave no doubt of his intensity. The two have jogged and played basketball.

“He’s a serious competitor. He plays to win,’’ said Thune, drawing an analogy between his performance on the court and in the chamber.

The veneer cracked that September 2010 evening, when he stood behind a podium and spoke to the C-SPAN cameras and a mostly empty room. His speech came during debate on a Democratic bill (which Brown opposed) to end certain corporate offshore tax advantages. The speech received little attention at the time, and an edited video now posted on Brown’s official website does not contain the full thrust of his frustrations. In the complete speech, the senator wistfully recalled the first few months of his term, how he was “all eager and ready to go.’’

“Gosh, I am going to make a difference,’’ he recalled thinking, “I am going to make a difference, everybody.’’

He soon learned what the Capitol was really all about - “scoring political points for November.’’

Later in the rambling speech, Brown again grew quiet, almost whispering. “I don’t want to seem like a downer.’’ But then his frustration was back in a flash. “You’re telling me we can’t just do one thing? Can we do one thing? Just one?’’

Interviews with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill confirm Brown’s assertion - that he arrived in the Senate full of idealism and eager to make a positive mark. He set out to put into legislative action the extraordinary outpouring of anger against the political system that resulted in his surprise election.

He was unable to deliver on his central campaign promise: using his vote as the 41st Republican senator to block Obama’s health care legislation. Democrats thwarted that plan by using a parliamentary maneuver to skirt filibuster rules and pass the bill.

But Brown did land plum committee posts, on Armed Services and Homeland Security. He showed up at committee meetings on time, or even early, a practice virtually unheard of, to chat with low-level staff.

Brown’s impatience with the ways of Washington sometimes bubbles up in hourlong office meetings with special interest lobbyists and advocates. Observers say that Brown has occasionally cut sessions short or changed the subject entirely. Some interpret that as a sign of a short attention span; others say Brown just wants to cut through the baloney in a city loaded with it.

As for mentors in the Senate, Brown and his staff cite Arizona’s John McCain as a model for how to operate as a GOP maverick and as Brown’s guide to the politics and tactics required to navigate the Armed Services Committee. But McCain seemed surprised when told Brown views him as a mentor. Mostly, Brown has not formed close political bonds with any particular senator or faction, say those who have worked with him.

“He didn’t have any one single guy that was his go-to guy, and that was a key factor in building his independent persona,’’ said Steven Schrage, who served as Brown’s chief of staff during his first year in office and left to teach economics and national security at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. “Sometimes there tends to be different groupings in the Senate. He was like the guy that got along with all the groups but wasn’t strongly identified with any of them.’’

Brown did seek to build bridges. After setting up shop in Kennedy’s former offices, he hosted informal, bipartisan gatherings over beer and wine on the balcony, with its impressive view of the Capitol. (He no longer occupies the spacious old Kennedy offices; he has been moved to something more suited to a freshman).

Brown has also made a point of reading books by leaders of the rival party. He keeps a copy of majority leader Harry Reid’s history of Searchlight, Nevada, in his office. And one day in the Senate chamber, Brown approached New York’s Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat, to sign Schumer’s book on the middle class, the ultimate ego stroke.

The eventual erosion of the relationship between Brown and Schumer - tested by the Senate’s partisan rancor - foreshadowed the frustrations Brown would later air in his angry speech.

Their falling-out centered not on the usual flashpoints of health care or taxes or the deficit, but on campaign finance reform. Democrats and advocates for stronger regulations said they were initially heartened by Brown’s populist calls for ending business as usual in Washington.

The month before Brown was sworn in, the Supreme Court had opened election campaigns to unlimited spending by individuals and corporations, in the Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission decision. Schumer and his staff quickly approached Brown about signing on to a bill, called the DISCLOSE act, that would force disclosure of the sources of all the new money.

Schumer and the Democrats badly needed a Republican to support the bill so they could secure the 60-vote supermajority required to break a GOP filibuster. They targeted Brown, based on his stated willingness to take on the status quo and his goal of bringing “accountability and transparency back to our government.’’

Brown and his team seemed receptive initially and Schumer’s team was “pretty optimistic’’ he would be a cosponsor, said a top Democratic aide involved in the talks but who requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations. In preliminary negotiations Brown staff members even suggested language that would have strengthened the bill, the aide said.

But the US Chamber of Commerce lobbied heavily against forcing companies and other entities to disclose campaign activities and contributors. Moreover, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky staunchly opposed any limits on the new, unfettered spending environment. “There were lots of pressures coming from Senator McConnell on all Republicans to oppose disclosure,’’ said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports stronger finance regulations.

After entertaining the measure for weeks, Brown’s staff backed away from discussions about cosponsoring the bill. Brown publicly announced his opposition to the measure in July, echoing GOP leaders’ opposition in saying it would give an unfair advantage to Democrats by exempting labor unions from some provisions. Without any Republican willing to support the measure, it died.

“That initial campaign mentality [about transparency and accountability] carried over in those first meetings we had’’ with Brown’s staff, the Democratic aide said, “and then it was almost like a switch was flipped and there was no interest whatsoever.’’

Asked why the senator opposed the bill after initially entertaining the measure, Brown spokeswoman Marcie Kinzel would not elaborate: “He took it under advisement and reviewed it and then decided not to sponsor.’’

Months later, in his evening Senate floor rant, Brown explained his reasons for voting against the bill - even as Schumer presided over the chamber with a gavel in his hand.

“Am I on a different planet or something?’’ Brown declared. “We should be talking about jobs every single day that we are in session. We spent three or four days talking about the DISCLOSE Act. Give me a break.’’

Creating jobs has consistently been at the top of Brown’s agenda. In his first piece of legislation in March 2010, he offered an amendment to a $15 billion jobs package backed by the Obama administration. Brown sought to include a cut in payroll taxes, amounting to about $100 a month, for 130 million working Americans.

Brown proposed to fund his amendment with unspent billions from the 2009 economic stimulus package, a political nonstarter with the White House that doomed the amendment. Four Democrats voted in favor, including Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, but it was not enough.

Still, against the advice of GOP leaders, he voted for the overall jobs package even without other cuts to fund the extra spending. By contrast, Brown would later vote against an extension of unemployment benefits and against summer jobs money for teens, saying they were not paid for with offsetting budget cuts.

Those jobs-related votes built the sort of mixed record that sometimes puzzles pundits. But it makes sense in the context of internal Senate politics, where Republicans seeking to blaze a centrist path must carefully choose when they part ways with McConnell and other GOP leaders and when they toe the line.

“To his credit, I have to say he has done a pretty good job of threading the needle,’’ said James P. Manley, a former top aide to Reid and to Kennedy.

Brown has denounced congressional budget earmarks as political pork and voted to ban them. But his willingness to participate in a rite of Washington budget-drafting - protecting home-state largesse - was on display when he joined Democrats and Republicans in fighting to protect General Electric’s alternative engine for the F-35 jet, an engine the Pentagon said was not necessary and wasteful.

Critics viewed the engine as a giant earmark because it was not contained in the defense budget. Brown, adopting GE’s argument, said requiring the Pentagon to develop two engines would reduce overall costs by forcing companies to compete for the work. Hundreds of jobs were at stake at a GE plant in Lynn, which was helping produce the engine.

“While he came to Washington as a reformer, Brown quickly showed he could play the political game,’’ said Loren Thompson, a consultant and chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Virginia. “Exhibit A is the General Electric jet engine. He did exactly what Ted Kennedy would have done in those same circumstances.’’

But that kind of in-the-trenches budget work garnered little attention for Brown. It was not until 2011 that the freshman lawmaker broke from the pack with a high-profile bill that he called his own and that became law.

Within three days of a “60 Minutes’’ broadcast that suggested some members of Congress were financially profiting from advance knowledge of government regulations, Brown introduced a measure blocking anyone in Congress from using nonpublic information to influence personal investments. Brown muscled his way into the headlines in a race against a fellow Senate freshman, Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York who was drafting her own version of the same bill.

Brown has said that he does his homework and that he reads the bills that come before Congress. But in this instance, Brown’s measure was so hastily drafted that it contained exact language lifted from an earlier House bill on the same subject. And even after Brown’s draft was set aside by the Homeland Security Committee in favor of another version, Brown continued to claim credit in an encounter with President Obama. In January, Brown intercepted the president as he departed the House after his State of the Union speech.

“My insider trading bill is on Harry’s desk right now,’’ Brown told the president, referring to Reid. “Tell him to get it out. It’s ready to go.’’

As television cameras caught the moment, Obama promised Brown: “I’m going to tell him. I’m going to tell him to get it done.’’

The president signed the bill on April 4, with Brown among a handful of Democrats and Republicans invited to the White House ceremony.

It stretches credibility for Brown to claim the act as his own, said Wendy Schiller, an associate professor of political science at Brown University. But the rookie showed a quick response and deft footwork that could help him rack up more significant achievements if Massachusetts voters decide to send him back to the Senate for a full term.

“What’s fortunate for Scott Brown is that most people from Massachusetts aren’t expecting much from him legislatively,’’ she said. “His reelection campaign is not about what he’s done legislatively, but what he’ll do if you give him six more years.’’

Bryan Bender of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Christopher Rowland can be reached at crowland@globe.com, and Bobby Caina Calvan at bobby.calvan@globe.com.

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