'Born Fighter' Settles Down To Collegial First Term

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008; A01

Even before Virginia Sen. James Webb was sworn in, the decorated Marine was known for his confrontational, sometimes antagonistic style.

There was that retort at the White House when President Bush asked about his son serving in Iraq ("That's between me and my boy, Mr. President"). His fiery Democratic response to the State of the Union address on national television ("The president took us into this war recklessly"). And his testy exchange with Republican colleague Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) on a Sunday morning talk show ("Lindsey's had a hard month").

Some of his supporters wondered how effective Webb would be in the collegial Senate, where personal relationships count for everything. But after a little more than a year in office, Webb has surprised many people in both parties with a tactful, patient style that has raised his profile among freshman senators.

To "bury the hatchet" with Bush, as he put it, Webb even initiated a private chat with his Marine son, Jimmy, and the president in the Oval Office after Jimmy returned from Iraq. His son's combat boots, the ones Webb wore on the campaign trail to symbolize his "Born Fighting" theme, are now put away, enshrined in glass in his office lobby.

"The [Republican] campaign strategy . . . was to say that I was going to have a temper all the time. . . . This is a guy who doesn't get along," said Webb, 62, of Arlington County. "But I know how to work in this environment."

The former Navy secretary appeared more than 25 times on national talk shows in his first year, unusual for a freshman who is not running for president. He has regularly attended Iraq strategy sessions in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.). He has doled out advice to other senators, including freshman Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana.

His bill to extend home leaves for U.S. troops came closer to passing than any Democratic proposal involving the war last year.

"Jim has a special place in the Senate," McCaskill said. "He has vaulted to a position of influence."

The man he narrowly beat in 2006, George Allen, said he continues to differ with Webb on the war and whether illegal immigrants should be granted citizenship, but Allen also has taken note of Webb's elevated role.

"He certainly became one of the Democrats' spokespersons right off the bat, so he seems to be acclimating well to the Senate and advocating what he believes," Allen said. "I know the Democrats in the Senate rely on him, and in that aspect, he is doing well."

Webb was asked to deliver the keynote address to the New Hampshire Democratic Party at its annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in the fall, a high-profile speech that in recent years has been made by former presidential candidates John F. Kerry and John Edwards.

"We hit the ground running," Webb said. "We're at the bottom of the food chain but . . . we have really made a dent up here."

Some pundits have mentioned Webb as a potential running mate for the Democratic presidential nominee this year. He won't talk about it, but even supporters say it would be difficult for him.

Some constituents and party activists say Webb does not interact very much with the people who elected him. While other members of Congress spend their time away from Washington holding town hall meetings and appearing at events around their states, Webb shies from public events. Last month, he was a no-show at the Democratic Party of Virginia's annual fundraiser, which drew record crowds because of appearances by presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

"Webb has mastered the Washington side of his job, but the job of getting out and speaking with constituents and hearing their concerns seems to be something he hasn't warmed up to," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes the Senate for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.

Webb is relatively unknown even in his own party. Several state and local elected officials in both parties say they have limited interaction, if any, with Webb or his staff.

His recent foray into the Democratic primary for the 11th Congressional District race to succeed Tom Davis (R) was surprising. He endorsed Leslie L. Byrne over Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, even though he usually stays out of primary endorsements.

"He's kind of an apolitical politician. He doesn't fit the mold at all," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) "Politics doesn't come naturally."

Moran, who recalled witnessing Webb staring straight ahead while participating in a Falls Church parade, said he wanted to tell Webb to loosen up and engage the crowd.

Mame Reiley, Virginia's Democratic National Committee member, said that when people complain they do not see Webb, it just means he is in high demand.

"He has hunkered down and gotten to know the internal workings of the Senate," she said. "He's doing what he was elected to do."

Webb said that he has participated in more events across the state than people might realize but stressed that his job does not require him to give speeches and attend meetings like other statewide officeholders.

"The difference in being, say, a governor and senator is my job is right here," he said in his Senate office.

Webb's opportunity for public interaction was limited last year because Senate leaders kept lawmakers in session an uncharacteristic five days a week. He is completing a book to be released in May, which he calls a series of "think pieces" based on his experiences, and is helping care for his year-old daughter. He took congressional trips to Asia and Iraq and raised money and campaigned for state and local candidates in the fall.

Webb said he did not even have time for a vacation, managing to squeeze in only one night out with his wife during the summer break.

"It's been a really, really hard year," Webb said. "I spent basically the whole year working here, going home and writing the book. I've gotten around the state whenever I can. As for personal free time, there really hasn't been any."

Chris LaCivita, a GOP political consultant who was involved in Allen's campaign, is dubious that Webb has changed much from the candidate who benefited from an Allen gaffe on the campaign trail to beat the incumbent by 9,000 votes.

"A lot of the concerns expressed when he was a candidate have not gone away. He's a little prone to go off," LaCivita said. The Senate "is a place where you need to work across party lines. . . . He doesn't sit well in that collegial body."

Webb helped get a bill signed into law that creates an independent commission to examine private contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, a measure that was unpopular among some Northern Virginia contractors. But Webb, who opposed the invasion of Iraq from the start, failed to pass a bill to provide education benefits to soldiers serving after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Democrats, who hold a one-seat advantage in the Senate, have repeatedly fallen short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster to pass a bill, contributing to a charged partisan atmosphere. Webb said that the rancor is frustrating but that he understands it often takes years to get bills through and will keep trying.

He introduced a bill that would prohibit Bush from taking military action against Iran without congressional approval. He weighed in on the Senate immigration debate with a proposal that would allow illegal immigrants to become citizens if they met certain criteria. And he led a hearing on a long-standing interest: the growing prison population.

Some people, even those in his own party, are questioning whether Webb will run again. He won't say.

"I like what I'm doing," he said. "Any job I've ever had, if I feel like I am really accomplishing something, then I'll do the job."

Staff writer Tim Craig and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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