Freshman Sen. Scott Brown is new go-to guy on Capitol Hill

Massachusetts voters elected Republican State Senator Scott Brown to fill the seat of longtime statesman Edward M. Kennedy, who died in August 2009.
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Saturday, July 17, 2010

One of the surest ways to tell whether a bill will rise or fall in Congress right now is not a speech from President Obama or a declaration by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Instead, it's often a letter from the office of a senator who has served in Washington for less than seven months.

All month, Republican leaders in the Senate blocked President Obama's long-awaited Wall Street reform bill. Democrats didn't have the 60 votes required to cut off debate and bring the bill to a vote. At least they didn't until Sen. Scott Brown, the freshman Republican from Massachusetts, announced Monday that he would break with his party and support the bill. The GOP filibuster threat collapsed. The bill passed Thursday.

But just as Democrats had begun the ritual swoon over their new best friend, Brown turned against them, declaring that he would stand in the way of a bill requiring corporations to disclose more about their campaign contributions. The Democrats had been counting on his vote. Now they fear his opposition could make it much tougher to pass.

Brown campaigned in Massachusetts as an outsider. He criticized the ways of Washington and pledged to be the 41st vote against Obama's health-care plan. But far from becoming a dependable GOP vote, Brown has turned out to be an unpredictable lawmaker. In a Senate where Democrats control 59 votes but need 60 on most major legislation, Brown is in many ways the third member of a troika that includes moderate Maine Republicans Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins. They occasionally break with the other 38 GOP members of the Senate.

His outsize role has both parties alternately praising and condemning him. In a true feat of bipartisanship, he has at times annoyed both conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

"I'm not quite sure if there's a surprise," Brown said of his independence. "I've always said I'm going to be an independent voter and thinker. That's how I've been throughout my legislative career. I'm just happy I've been able to get people working again."

The former state legislator arrived in Washington with great fanfare after his stunning victory in a January special election to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D). Eager not to be defined by ideology, he declared himself a "Scott Brown Republican."

Both parties are trying to figure out what that means exactly. He is moderate on some issues and conservative on others. He has opposed Democrats' push to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military, but he left open the possibility of backing Solicitor General Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court, even though Kagan sharply opposed "don't ask, don't tell" as dean of the Harvard Law School.

After a one-on-one meeting with Obama, unusual for a first-year senator, Brown declared that he could support a "comprehensive energy plan" but not one that caps carbon emissions.

Brown helped prevent a Republican filibuster of a long-stalled jobs bill when he first arrived in the Senate, but he has joined fellow Republicans in blocking additional funding for unemployment benefits unless Congress makes sure the measure won't increase the deficit.

Unlike Snowe, who during last year's health-care process publicly discussed whether she would join Democrats in pushing a bill through Congress, Brown tends to deliberate in private. He does not give strongly worded speeches, watches his words around reporters, and often announces his decisions in statements released through his press office.

He presents himself as a newcomer unfamiliar and still uncomfortable with Washington. But as the financial overhaul bill moved through Congress, Brown navigated the process as if he were a master of the Senate.

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