WASHINGTON — In a sparsely furnished office with nothing to soften its bright white walls, Pat Toomey fidgets. He’s "really ready to get down to work" as Pennsylvania’s new Republican senator, but he has to endure today’s ceremony of inaugural day for the 112th Congress.
It’s a weighty agenda that Toomey, 49, vows to tackle with colleagues. This Congress will aim to fix problems that affect the economy and joblessness, he says, and to keep the Obama administration from proceeding with its agenda.
"Washington’s role is not to make jobs, but it should create an environment where people across Pennsylvania will create jobs," Toomey says. "The way to do that is to first stop a legislative agenda that is having a chilling effect on the economy, like serial bailouts and proposed legislation like cap-and-trade, card check."
Toomey, a Lehigh Valley businessman, returns to the Capitol after a stint in the U.S. House from 1999 to 2005. He won the Senate seat in November by just 2 percentage points over Joe Sestak, a Democratic congressman. A Harvard University grad with a political science degree, Toomey is a consistent advocate of reducing or eliminating taxes and publicly opposed the 2009 federal stimulus bill.
His family is here for the pomp and circumstance: wife Kris, children Bridget, 10, Patrick, 8, and Duncan, 8 months, as well as his parents, five siblings with spouses and children, and a contingent of relatives from Rhode Island, where he grew up.
"It will be great to be surrounded by the family, but what I am really looking forward to is really getting down to work," Toomey repeats.
He’s frustrated that he and other freshmen senators don’t know their committee assignments. "We are way behind; this is actually very unfortunate," he sighs.
It’s problematic that Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky haven’t negotiated committee designations because it makes a difference when hiring staff, Toomey says: "You don’t know which experts to hire."
He’d like to serve on the Senate Finance Committee, but the powerful committee doesn’t accept freshmen. So he set his sights on Banking or Budget and Commerce, or both, "which would be good for Pennsylvania," he says.
Still, Toomey’s reluctant to immediately define himself in the Senate. He points to former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a Republican in office from 1985 to 2002, as someone he admires because "he really understood what makes an economy hum and was a very principled advocate for limited government and free enterprise."
"Gramm made quite a stir at one time as a fiscal policy wonk who abandoned the Democratic Party for what he saw as its irresponsible tax-and-spend policies," says Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University. "The trouble with the Gramm association is that the former senator lost a lot of stature with the subprime (mortgage) crisis. A lot of Republicans distanced themselves from him at that point."
Toomey points to Gramm’s principles because they address today’s issues: "Getting the economy moving again, and the job creation that we desperately need."
In office, Toomey may not become the hard-driving, right-wing extremist portrayed in his opponent’s political ads.
Immediately after his election in November, Toomey penned a column for USA Today with Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, that recommended both parties work together to ban earmarks. He spoke in support of repealing the "don’t ask, don’t tell" clause that allows gays to serve in the military.
His moderate stance began in August 2009, when he supported President Obama’s choice of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, saying: "I would vote for her confirmation because objective qualifications should matter more than ideology in the judicial confirmation process."
That begs the question: Do Pennsylvanians know what they’re getting with Toomey?
"A principled statesman," Keystone College political science professor Jeff Brauer says. "Yes, he is ideologically conservative, but he is not the extremist that was painted by the Democrats during the election."
Toomey says voters sent a clear message in November that they want Congress to control spending and focus on job creation.
"Now, with a majority in the House and a much stronger Republican presence in the Senate, legislation on things like card check and cap-and-trade aren’t going to happen," he says, but with the caveat that the Obama administration could enact such policies at the agency level.
"If Toomey is serious as projecting himself as Mr. Fiscal Responsibility, that will diminish his political standing," predicts Bert Rockman, a political science professor at Purdue University in Indiana. "It’s not an easy task to stay in that role."
A moderate approach makes sense, Rockman says. Toomey needs to start out by working with his Pennsylvania Senate colleague, Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr.
Toomey says he looks forward to that. "We have vacancies on the federal bench that require appointments, which requires a collaborative effort, so that will be a good beginning of our relationship," he says.
Casey told the Tribune-Review last month that he looks forward to working with Toomey on issues that will affect Pennsylvania, such as education and energy, noting: "There are a lot of places where we can come together, where party affiliation doesn’t have to get in the way of progress."
Because conservative Republicans ousted primarily moderate Democrats, and not liberals, in November’s election, this could be a divisive Congress. Yet, Toomey believes there will be plenty of instances in which bipartisan approaches evolve.
"I am sure that there are a lot of Democratic senators that were paying careful attention to the election that just happened," he says. "The American people spoke pretty clearly: They were not happy with the path that we were on. So, hopefully, there will be a significant amount of Democratic senators looking for ways to cooperate with new guys like me, as well as the guys that have been around here for a while."
He may be right about that, Brauer says.
"Everyone seems poised to finally address the deficits that have plagued federal budgets," he says. "We may finally get that done now."
Tribune-Review Political Reporter