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Elizabeth Warren is prepared to pick her spots

As a watchdog, she spoke out. But in the Senate, the establishment critic is showing restraint.

Elizabeth Warren has no bills or initiatives ready to propose when she becomes senator.SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF/Globe Staff

Elizabeth Warren is resigning the tenured post at Harvard Law School that took her 30 years to achieve. She has met privately with her former opponent, Scott Brown, who addressed her as professor instead of senator-elect. And she has spoken half a dozen times with majority leader Harry Reid about her new role in the Senate.

But during her first extensive interview since her victory last month, Warren said she had no bills or initiatives ready to propose when she becomes senator next month. Instead, she said, she is studying the ways of the Senate, looking into issues that others have proposed, and seeking out alliances.


The conciliatory approach may surprise those who expected the self-proclaimed rock-thrower to arrive with a slingshot, and play the role of constant critic, forever dishing with Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow.

Warren, who once promised to throw her body in front of bad bills if she won office, acknowledged that in the Senate, with its tradition of deference to senior members, the road to power often requires discretion.

"Here's how I see this," Warren said. "My job is to be effective on behalf of Massachusetts, and so what I'm trying to parse through is the difference between how much of this is about your own initiative, how much it's about finding other bills that are really what you'd like to see get done and offering to be helpful, [and] how much it's looking for the little cracks that are windows of opportunity."

Certainly, Warren is not promising a retreat. She said she will continue to be an outspoken voice on her priorities, which she described as filibuster reform, lowering college debt, financial regulation, and public infrastructure and clean energy investment, all of which she said will help the middle class. She said she wants to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Supreme Court also announced on Friday that it would review.


"I'm not patient," she said, as if to assure supporters she won't be tamed. "I'm not patient."

But she said she will choose her tactics carefully, keeping quiet when it suits her objective and making noise when she sees the need.

"I don't think those are inconsistent," she said. "I want to use every tool in the tool box because I want to help get things done. And sometimes the best way to do that is quietly, let everyone else take credit and, sometimes, it's to be willing to stand outside and call everyone out over it. I'm open to any part of that."

She described her crowning policy achievement, the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that raised her national profile, as one of those cracks of opportunity, a once far-fetched notion that became possible after the bank bailouts infuriated much of the nation.

"I knew they were going to have to rewrite the financial rules," she said. "And if they're going to have to rewrite the financial rules, that's going to create an opening to rethink consumer finance."

During an hourlong interview in the office of her campaign adviser, Doug Rubin, Warren looked as if she had regained much of the energy that had been sapped in the aftermath of a yearlong campaign. She tapped her fingers on the table to underscore points, went off on spirited tangents about the need for medical research spending, and joked that she is losing job security by giving up lifetime tenure for a mere six-year term in the Senate.


Warren's victory on Nov. 6 elated Democrats around the country, and vanquished Brown, a rising star in the Republican Party. Their contentious battle was the nation's most expensive Senate race, with about $80 million spent between the candidates. Early in the race, Warren introduced herself to the Democratic base as an uncompromising fighter for the middle class and a liberal counterweight to the Tea Party.

In her interview last week, Warren showed a caution that has developed over the last year, as she evolved from a watchdog working outside the power structure into a political player entering its inner sanctum.

On one of the most pressing issues knotting Washington, the fiscal cliff, Warren avoided drawing bright lines. She declined to describe specific tax rates and spending cuts she would endorse as part of a deal to avert the mandatory tax hikes and spending cuts that will take effect at month's end unless Washington reaches a deal.

"I don't know how to answer the question," she said. "Let's see what they've got."

Warren will be sworn in Jan. 3, when it's possible a deal could already be in place.

She reiterated that she wants the Bush tax cuts to expire for the top 2 percent of taxpayers and said she would reduce spending by eliminating tax benefits for oil companies and agriculture subsidies, and reducing military spending. Those were all issues she talked about on the campaign trail.


She said she would oppose cuts to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, but is open to "technocratic" changes to Medicare that she declined to specify.

In a nod to Senate protocol, she declined to name the committees she wants to serve on, or even to confirm published reports that she has already secured a position on the Senate banking committee.

And if there are scores to settle after a brutal campaign — over how she was attacked as a wealthy creature of the Ivy League who unfairly benefited from her declaration that she is part Native American — Warren isn't settling them in public.

"You know, it's over," Warren said, shaking her head and flatly refusing to talk about the campaign. "Come on. What's in the rearview mirror doesn't matter. What matters is what happens now."

Warren said she has rested little during the past month, aside from a Thanksgiving trip to see her grandchildren in California. Instead, she has made "about a kazillion" calls to thank supporters, seek advice from friends and adversaries, and make pitches for committee assignments.

She has been to Washington a few times for orientation and an unsuccessful hunt for an apartment. And she has been shutting down her campaign operation and interviewing staff for what will be a smaller apparatus than her $42 million campaign, which had 130 employees.

She said she wants an apartment within walking distance of her Senate office, which, owing to her freshman status, will be in a basement building.


Bruce Mann, Warren's husband, will continue to teach at Harvard Law School and remain in the couple's Cambridge home, which will also be her primary residence.

Warren said she would have some regret about leaving the nation's most prestigious university, but added, without a trace of irony, that her new job may also prove interesting.

"I remind myself that I'm going to be happy in the United States Senate," she said. "I'm going to find things I love to do."

In a meeting potentially fraught with raw feelings, Warren said she visited with Brown for 30 minutes in his Senate office in Washington last month, when she was in town for orientation. She said she doesn't recall any talk of the campaign.

"I thought it went well," Warren said. "I asked him a lot about the Senate, about what he did, about what advice he had, what surprised him most."

With a slight chuckle, she said Brown continued to address her as "professor," a title he seemed to use at every turn during the campaign and that rankled some of Warren's supporters who saw it as a veiled charge of elitism.

Marcie Kinzel, a Brown spokeswoman, confirmed the meeting was cordial and focused in part on ensuring that constituent services are not interrupted during the transition. She declined to discuss other aspects of the meeting.

Warren said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has not called or introduced himself, although she heard him speak at a dinner for Senate freshmen.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, whom she has known for years through her work on banking issues, has been one of the nicest Republicans, Warren said.

Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who supported Brown, also called her after the election, an act she called particularly gracious.

The man who will be Warren's senior colleague, John F. Kerry, would make "an extraordinary secretary of state," Warren said. But she would not say whether she thinks the president should nominate him or Ambassador Susan E. Rice, who is said to be Obama's first choice for the job.

Warren refused to speculate on whether Democrats could hold Kerry's Senate seat if he leaves, a scenario that could create an opening for a Brown comeback.

"I'm not in the pundit business," Warren said.

Bierman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman. Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.