WASHINGTON — Walking with Edward J. Markey through the Senate is like tagging along at his high-school reunion. More than half of his new Senate colleagues are old acquaintances from the House, but in some cases, it’s been a while.
Hey, there’s Roger Wicker, the Mississippi Republican who left the House six years ago. If it isn’t Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who came over in 2011. Here comes a couple of new senators. They were on Markey’s committees for a time, he recalls, in a stream of reminiscences that continues on elevators, through corridors, and down tunnels.
None of the roughly 50 other senators who came from the House is quite like Markey, who, with nearly 37 years in the lower chamber, is the longest-serving representative in history to make the leap to the rarefied ranks of the Senate. The Massachusetts Democrat was sworn in two weeks ago to replace Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
“It’s a little bit like going from the National League to the American League,” Markey said. “It’s still politics. But the rules are a little bit different.”
The Washington veteran said his biggest challenges are deciphering separate parliamentary rules, finding a new set of cafeterias, and navigating the Senate side of the Capitol’s labyrinthine hallways.
“The issues are the same,” Markey said in his first sit-down interview amid the gilded mirrors, grand curtains, and fireplaces of his new office, which was previously occupied by Kerry (and, on an interim basis, Senator William “Mo” Cowan).
Markey said he has yet to decide what legislation he will propose first, but he is likely to pick up where he left off, using his old House playbook. His chief of staff, Jeffrey Duncan, who has worked for Markey for 28 years, said Markey has a stack of initiatives he brought over from the House: ensuring the safety of natural gas lines, restricting how the government can use drones inside US borders, and regulating oil and natural gas speculation.
Climate change, which Markey campaigned on, will be his top issue, Markey said. He co-wrote a sweeping bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 2009 that was approved in the House before dying in the Senate.
“A lot of that is going to be determined by the science,” Markey said. “We have to win the debate on the science.”
Near an elevator Thursday, Markey ran into the man who may represent his biggest challenge to winning the science debate, Senator James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican well-known for his skepticism that humans have contributed to warming the Earth. Inhofe is a scourge to environmentalists and mainstream scientists, but any ideological clash with Markey was undetectable when the two men saw each other.
“Hey Fast Eddie, how you doin’?” Inhofe, another former House member, said when he saw Markey.
Over the past couple of weeks, the two men, whose offices are down the hall from one another, have been friendly.
“He and I have probably been quoted in the same story 1,000 times in the last 10 years,” on opposite sides of the climate issue, Markey said. “We can disagree on that and still be next-door neighbors.”
Inhofe, in a statement, called Markey a “good friend,” despite their differences on climate change.
Markey said Inhofe was quick to stop by to welcome him after he was sworn in. Markey missed the visit, but the two men later sat in Inhofe’s office for 15 minutes, agreeing that they could never work together on climate legislation but promising each other that they would seek common ground — somewhere.
Pressed, Markey said he could not name an issue of agreement.
Because Markey was not appointed to the committee that oversees climate policy, he will have to use his assignments to the Foreign Relations Committee and Commerce, Science, and Transportation to exert leverage on climate issues. That can be done by influencing efforts on international climate treaties and oversight of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
On Friday, Markey learned that he would chair a foreign relations subcommittee that has direct jurisdiction over international climate and energy issues.
Markey has promised bipartisanship. But his tenure in the House marked him as one of the country’s most liberal congressmen, with a rigid party-line voting record. In his first major policy vote in the Senate last week, he gave little evidence that he would move to the center. He voted with 17 senators who opposed a compromise on student loan rates that had the backing of both parties, as well as President Obama.
In doing so, he sided with Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat who is now the state’s senior senator.
He argued that the student loan compromise, which would tie the interest rates to market rates with a cap of 8.25 percent, would make college less affordable to the students who are now starting their high school years.
Together, the two have the least seniority — the key to power in the Senate — of any state delegation. Occupying the liberal edge of the Democratic Party’s ideological spectrum, they could wind up on the losing end of more compromises in the future, even as their party holds power.
Markey arrived in the Senate just as leaders narrowly averted a partisan explosion over the rules governing how much power Republicans would have to hold up presidential nominations. Despite the institution’s recent reputation for dysfunction and bitter feuds between the parties, Markey said he considers it an upgrade in cooperation from the House, where Democrats have very little leverage.
“The House is controlled by Tea Party Republicans,” Markey said. “The agenda over there is set by people who do not work with Democrats in any meaningful way.”
Markey said that he will find more opportunity to increase bipartisanship on telecommunications rules, the less glamorous lawmaking that has been central to his career in Congress. The two parties often agree on regulatory changes designed to bring more competition into the market for cable, Internet, and other communications, he said.
“I want to break gridlock,” Markey said. “But I also don’t want to compromise on core principles.”