It’s time for the mid-summer round of “Who Seems More Like A Senator?” In past episodes, we’ve explored who had the more sensible approach on the federal deficit and who would do more to rein in the filibuster. But many moderate voters are looking beyond individual issues for someone who will rise above Washington’s petty squabbles, speak the truth as they see it, search for common ground, and have the courage to compromise.
So who has the edge on this kind of leadership? I asked Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren to cite times when they had worked across the partisan divide and when they had publicly broken with their party. I also asked what they would do to make the US Senate a more functional body and whether they had offered any pledges that could limit their independence of judgment.
Bipartisan efforts. Brown cited the role he played on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill. He was one of three Republican senators to support the bill, which passed the Senate with no votes to spare. “Although I took a lot of heat from members of my own party,” he said in a statement, “I believed that we needed to put meaningful reforms in place on Wall Street.” US Representative Barney Frank gives substantial credit there, saying Brown played a constructive role in getting the bill passed. Frank also notes, however, that at the 11th hour, the GOP trio balked at funding the law through an assessment on big financial institutions, which left taxpayers footing the bill.
Brown also pointed to his efforts to ban trading by members of Congress. He overstates his role there — his quickly drafted legislation wasn’t the bill that passed — but he did buttonhole President Obama after his State of the Union speech and get his help in moving the matter along. He also cites, accurately, his work to build consensus for a “crowdfunding” bill to let businesses raise capital online.
Warren cites her work as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, composed of three Democrats and two Republicans, that monitored federal bailout efforts and reported to Congress on a variety of related topics. “It was Democrats and Republicans working together to get things done,” she said in an interview. “A substantial number of the reports we produced were unanimous.”
Republican appointee Ken Troske, professor of economics at the University of Kentucky, credits her with listening carefully to differing views. “Elizabeth as the chair played an important role in ensuring consensus,” he says. Warren also points, accurately, to her efforts, as President Obama’s consumer-protection guru, to develop a much shorter, clearer mortgage application — the brainchild of the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s Alex J. Pollock.
Outspokenness and independence. Brown has been critical of the GOP-led House on several notable occasions, including when the House balked at extending the payroll tax cut and held up reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. He also cited votes like those to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” and for Obama’s New Start nuclear-arms treaty. In both cases, most Senate Republicans voted the other way.
As chairman of the oversight panel, Warren notes that she was tough on Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. In a 2004 book, she was also sharply critical of then-senators Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton over their support for a bankruptcy bill she considered unfair to single mothers.
Pledges. Although Brown styles it a promise to the people of Massachusetts, he has signed activist Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge. Warren has outlined her stands to many groups, but says (somewhat tentatively) that she can’t think of any absolute voting commitments she has made to any of them.
Making the Senate more productive. Warren supports a package of reforms to rein in the current abuse of the filibuster. Among other things, it would require filibusterers to stand and palaver rather than just threatening to do so. Brown, who portrays fixing the Senate as mostly a matter of manner, says he’ll be an open-minded bridge-builder ready to work with senators on the other side.
Decision time: Warren gives the impression she would be a more independent thinker and more inclined toward compromise and bipartisanship than her to-the-ramparts reputation suggests.
Brown’s pledge to Norquist on taxes limits his independence. Still, as a freshman senator, Brown has displayed both an openness to working with Democrats and a periodic willingness to break with his fellow Republican senators. Yes, those stances sometime seem politically calculated. (In Washington?!?) Yet Brown has acted in bipartisan fashion often enough that Congressional Quarterly ranked him the second most bipartisan senator for 2011.
This round goes to him.