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Scott Brown: Outsize role for a freshman senator nears an end

Scott Brown is the swing vote for any major legislation that majority Democrats want to move. But come November, that is likely to change.

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Sen. Scott Brown is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington. He is, for now, the swing vote for any major legislation that majority Democrats want to move.

Drew Angerer/AP/File

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Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts has one of those classic Senate offices that freshmen typically wait decades to get – fireplace, balcony, a view of the Capitol. And he is, for now, the swing vote for any major legislation that majority Democrats want to move.

Come November, all that could all change. After midterm elections, Senator Brown’s temporary home in Sen. Edward Kennedy’s former office will be up for grabs by senators who outrank him (he’s currently 99th in seniority). And if the minority picks up seats, as predicted, Brown will no longer be the crucial 41st Republican. To get to the 60 votes needed to move an agenda in the Senate, a weakened Democratic majority may have to reopen broader bipartisan channels for doing business.

But for the last weeks of the 111th Congress, the junior senator from Massachusetts is the important vote on pending big bills. His every move is closely scrutinized not just in Washington, but also among conservatives, who backed his candidacy and worry that he has already helped Democrats in close votes.

“With Brown, it’s a chemistry of the numbers” for Senate votes, says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

“He wasn’t just any senator,” Mr. Baker adds. “He was a senator from Massachusetts, which means his vote was gettable for Democrats. Had he been from Louisiana or South Carolina, it probably would have been impossible to get him on anything.”

Just this week, Brown has made two consequential moves. On Monday, he indicated he’d support financial reform legislation, which awaits a final Senate vote that is expected on Thursday. (Two other Republican senators have indicated support for the bill.) Then, on Wednesday, Brown essentially sank prospects for moving campaign-finance legislation this session, which Democrats had proposed to limit corporate financing in the midterm elections.

In a letter to interest groups that support the campaign-finance legislation, Brown said that it doesn’t go far enough to provide accountability and transparency. “The DISCLOSE Act ... changes the rules in the middle of the game to provide a tactical advantage to the majority party,” he wrote in a July 14 letter. After the release of the letter, political handicappers declared the legislation dead for now.

On the campaign trail earlier this year, Brown pledged to be the 41st Senate vote against President Obama’s proposed health-care reform. But he never got a chance to take that vote. After his Jan. 19 upset, Democrats and the White House found a way to move health-care reform without coming back to the Senate.

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But Brown’s role has been pivotal from the start in moving the massive financial-reform bill. He initially opposed the legislation, on the grounds that it would hurt Massachusetts banks and cost jobs. “[T]his bill would prohibit businesses in Massachusetts from continuing to do business as has been done for decades and would lead to serious job loss in our state,” he said in a May 20 statement. But after promises from Democratic leaders to “fix” the bill, he broke with Senate GOP leaders, which ended debate on the bill and cleared the way for passage.

When those fixes did not show up in the final conference report, Brown told Democrats that they could no longer count on his vote. He especially objected to a $19 billion “tax” on banks that he said imposed unacceptable burdens on Bay State firms. In an unusual move, House and Senate negotiators reconvened a conference and redrafted the funding to get around Brown’s concerns. That was followed by the news Monday that he had renewed support for the legislation.

“He’s played [things] astutely,” Baker says. “He had experience being a [state] legislator. He understood immediately how strategic his role would be.”

Brown, elected in a special election to fill Senator Kennedy’s unexpired term, does not face reelection until 2012.

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