WASHINGTON — The fervor has hardly abated around Massachusetts’ celebrity senator, Elizabeth Warren, a fact made crystal clear one recent afternoon when a man stormed her after she delivered a fiery speech on Social Security benefits and breathlessly exclaimed, “I can’t believe I’m with you.”
But Warren’s own view of her role on Capitol Hill, and her strategy for winning influence, is much tamer and more incremental than her fans, or her enemies, might suspect.
She is certainly fanning her celebrity in the liberal activist community to further her agenda. But nearly five months into her tenure, she is using her voice for pinpoint strikes, rather than declarations of war — “looking for the place that I might be able to move the needle, even a little,” she said in an interview.
It’s a calibrated strategy that involves keeping quiet on many issues while using clout within her core sphere of admirers for bursts of attention on select causes. Warren, still a rookie with little official power in the tradition-bound Senate, has avoided using her megaphone on many of the hot topics in Washington — immigration, the IRS scandal, the war on terror — instead focusing on financial regulation, middle-class debt burden, and home-state issues such as the fishing industry.
Warren’s approach has won some early praise, with Representative Richard E. Neal, the Springfield Democrat, saying, “When you get here, one of the hardest things to do is not step on your tongue.”
But there have also been influential detractors, including scholars from the Brookings Institution, who recently called Warren’s first bill, a student loan program introduced this month, an “embarrassingly bad proposal.”
Warren and her supporters acknowledge she is unlikely to win approval for sweeping legislation in short order. Instead, the liberal Democrat who promised during her campaign to battle a system “rigged” for big bankers now talks more pragmatically of reframing the conversation.
“A lot of these are long games,” Warren said in an interview. “So turning up the heat under the big financial institutions, stirring the conversation on ‘too big to fail,’ doesn’t change the law today. But it helps push toward change.”
The question, analysts said, is whether she can broaden that conversation beyond her passionate following and employ the rhetoric to affect policy.
“It seems to me a lot of it is more tone and style than actual substance,” said Louise C. Bennetts, associate director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute, a think tank that opposes many of the regulations favored by Warren. “She’s trying to play to her base.”
Some of her impact may be difficult to measure. Warren says she is engaged in a game of defense, sometimes behind the scenes, to prevent regulators from going soft on the big banks that were supposed to be reined in by the financial laws she promoted as an advocate and adviser to President Obama.
Supporters say her mere presence in the Senate, combined with an occasional public tongue-lashing, will force regulators to think hard before acceding to the wishes of industry lobbyists.
“I think she is probably one of the most tracked people in the history of the Senate,” said James Ballentine, the executive vice president of congressional relations for the American Bankers Association, whose members are Warren’s prime rhetorical targets. At the same time, he adds that the industry sees her “as one of 100 senators expressing their concerns.”
Hearings bring out the best
So far, Warren has gained the most attention — and seems most at ease — at committee hearings, a setting that allows her to use the skills she acquired as a law professor to advocate her philosophy by interrogating witnesses, often government regulators. The Senate controls the process and witnesses have little defense if lawmakers take the offensive.
Her first such encounter in February, during a Senate Banking Committee grilling of regulators over their lack of criminal prosecutions, wasviewed hundreds of thousands of times online, and helped cement the notion that Warren would remain, in her new role, an aggressive antagonist of big banks.
“The question I really want to ask is about how tough you are — about how much leverage you really have,” she told a panel of seven regulators during that initial hearing.
Warren sits through many such hearings, taking notes and adjusting her glasses, and then using Socratic dialogue — familiar, no doubt, to her former students at Harvard Law School — to make a stinging point. On a recent morning, Warren sat through more than two hours of detailed testimony on the pharmaceutical industry on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, waiting through lengthy statements and questions by fellow senators for her turn.
She asked pointed questions about the compounding pharmacies, which were linked to a deadly meningitis outbreak last year that began with tainted drugs traced to a Massachusetts firm.
Warren pressed a high-ranking official in the Food and Drug Administration on how many people had been harmed or killed, nationwide, by tainted pharmaceuticals since 1997, when Congress first acted to regulate the compounding industry. “Why don’t you know?” Warren asked. “You’re the federal drug administration.”
When the hearing ended, Warren saw a colleague, Senator Pat Roberts, talking to a reporter for this story.
“What will it cost me to get you to say something nice about me?” Warren asked playfully, gently pressing the Kansas Republican’s hand.
“A vote on the farm bill,” Roberts replied.
“Ho, ho, ho. We’ll have to talk,” Warren said.
Warren said she has been surprised at how much business gets done in two- and three-minute conversations, the casual encounters senators have at the end of floor votes.
Another Republican senator, Bob Corker of Tennessee, said he invited Warren to cosponsor a bill to overhaul Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the government-sponsored entities designed to spur home ownership — after his staff saw Warren cite Corker during a campaign debate as a Republican with whom she could work.
After Warren walked away from Roberts, he said he was surprised by her sense of humor.
“I think she came in with perhaps expectations that she would be more confrontational,” Roberts said. “That’s not been the case. She’s been very respectful. She’s very articulate. She asks good questions, good pertinent questions.”
Roberts and other senators said Warren has been helped by the sense among colleagues that she is not seeking the limelight, a quality that has earned Senator Ted Cruz, an outspoken freshman Republican from Texas and a leader in the Tea Party movement, open mocking from Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“She’s sticking to her committee work,” Roberts said. “That really helps her.”
Targeting student debt
Even as she relishes opportunities to interrogate government regulators, Warren is a newcomer to the process of crafting laws. She has filed only one herself, with incomplete results, and signed on as a cosponsor to more than 80 bills, amendments, and resolutions.
Earlier this month, when Congress was consumed by a hearing on the attack against Americans in Benghazi, Warren took to the Senate floor to introduce the bill, a dramatic cut in the federal interest rate for student loans. Under Warren’s bill, the current rate of 3.4 percent, set to double to 6.8 percent on July 1, would drop for a year to 0.75 percent, to match the short-term rate afforded to big banks by the Federal Reserve.
The issue hit Warren’s sweet spots: what she describes as the built-in advantages enjoyed by big banks, the middle class struggle to repay debts, the universities that bolster the Massachusetts economy, and the college students whose passion helped transform Warren’s Senate campaign into a national cause.
“If the Federal Reserve can float trillions of dollars to large financial institutions at low interest rates to grow the economy, surely they can float the Department of Education the money to fund our students, keep us competitive, and help grow our middle class,” she said.
The proposal drew attention, particularly from liberal television and radio outlets, and petitions from advocacy groups.
Yet the bill also illustrated the limits to Warren’s approach. Even as consumer groups delighted in the attention Warren brought to the issue, they hedged when asked about the bill’s prospects for passage, which several observers say are dim. Warren’s bill is competing with other proposals that offer a range of solutions to avoid doubling student loan interest rates, including a Republican bill approved narrowly on Thursday in the House.
“How [Warren’s bill] will be perceived politically is hard to predict,” said Tobin Van Ostern, deputy director of Campus Progress, part of the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress. But, he argued, “what she’s doing is hugely important, which is lifting up this problem of student debt.”
A pair of scholars from Brookings disagreed, labeling Warren’s proposal a “cheap political gimmick” in an online essay, noting that student borrowers have higher rates of default and are offered generous forgiveness policies not granted to big banks.
“This logic just fails,” said Beth Akers, a fellow at the Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, who co-wrote the piece. “Students are fundamentally different as borrowers from these large financial institutions at the discount window.”
Warren rejects the argument that her bill is unlikely to pass but nonetheless offers a strong defense for reframing the debate. “We need, as a country, to think about it that way,” she said. “Every time the country makes a loan at low interest rates, it effectively invests in the recipient. We need to make those investments in our kids. . . . That’s why it’s the right place to start the conversation.”
‘One of the longest hours’
Even as Warren talks about the middle class and the big banks, she is eager to dispel the charge, made prominent in her campaign against US Senator Scott Brown, that she is out of touch with Massachusetts concerns. So she talks often about the fishing industry and travels home to Cambridge, where her husband, Harvard Law professor Bruce H. Mann, still lives.
One trip was unexpected. Warren was on a flight to Washington on April 15 when the Marathon bombs exploded. She learned sketchy details and rumors from a television set in an airport bar.
She tried to call her husband, but the signals were not working. She reached her chief of staff, Mindy Myers, who booked her on an immediate flight home, before Warren left airport security.
“They put us on the plane and I still was trying to call Bruce and trying to call anyone,” she said. “They buttoned us up and put us back on the tarmac and said the air space over Boston is closed. And we just sat on the plane.”
Warren pulled out a laptop, but otherwise felt helpless, wanting to throw her phone on the ground in frustration.
“It was one of the longest hours in my life,” she said. “It’s the worst when you don’t know how much has happened.”
She missed several meetings in Washington over the next couple of weeks, focusing on memorial services, hospital visits, and a few national media appearances aimed at raising money for the One Fund charity. Notably, Warren stayed out of the debate on Capitol Hill over the security issues raised by the bombing.
Looking to ‘move things’
Warren is an unusual senator in several ways. She is a rookie, but one who comes to the institution with highly specialized knowledge of the financial system — thanks to her career as a bankruptcy expert — rather than the general policy portfolio many career politicians bring to the job.
She is also, as she boasted during a recent hearing, “the senior senator from Massachusetts,” a title she earned almost immediately, after John F. Kerry was confirmed as secretary state.
Those factors, along with an ability to raise more money than anyone in the chamber, may help her gain added respect in the Senate. She has so far sent fund-raising e-mails for four fellow progressive lawmakers and has attended a fund-raiser for Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, and plans to attend one on May 29 for Edward J. Markey, an event also attracting Michelle Obama.
By restricting her appearances to state press and liberal-leaning national outlets, Warren can not only avoid stealing attention from senior members, but she can also more carefully craft her message. That has led some in the national press corps to scoff privately that she is aloof, as she issues terse “no-comments” when walking the halls of Congress.
“It was important for me to talk about the things I know about and care about, the things that brought me to the United States Senate,” Warren said. “Not just to get out and entertain. That’s not why I’m here.”
Though Warren has picked her spots, she has been more visible and active than Hillary Clinton, who deliberately maintained a lower profile as a US senator. Instead, Warren’s strategy has drawn comparisons with Senator Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat who arrived in 2009 after a career as a comedian. But Franken said he advised Warren to speak out on the issues where she is an expert.
“There was a special burden on me to show that I was not doing this to get on TV,” Franken said. “Elizabeth has been a national figure in terms of this discussion — in terms of middle class squeeze, consumer financial protections — and she should continue doing that and she should continue that on a national level.”
Warren admitted after her election last year that she has become more discreet “than I was in real life,” since entering politics. The Senate, she agreed then, demands even more discipline.
While she has had her share of frustration with the institution’s plodding pace, she insists that she is satisfied, even overjoyed, in those moments when it feels like “maybe, just maybe, we move things just a little bit.”
“Those are the days that I walk with a real swing in my step,” she said, jabbing her fists. “Those are the days I do the “mom dance’ out in the waiting area.”Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.