From the synagogue to the Senate: The busiest Democratic senator you’ve probably never heard of

Nevada Democrat Jacky Rosen is bent on being bipartisan in a Washington that is anything but

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) appears to be part of a dying breed of lawmakers who truly believe reaching across the aisle is productive. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Larry Rosen and Doug Emhoff bonded because of their powerful wives. As two of the only men in the book club for spouses when their other halves served as senators, they became good friends.

It just so happens their wives — Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who is now the vice president — enjoyed spending time and working with each other, too.

Harris and Emhoff are now in the White House. But that doesn’t mean that Rosen is a shoo-in when it comes to the Biden administration’s agenda, hamstrung by a 50-50 Senate and a roiling fight over whether to roll back the filibuster forcing most Senate legislation to clear a 60-vote bar.

Harris has been tasked with lobbying senators to advance sweeping voting rights legislation that has become a lightning rod for the filibuster battle. But despite their personal ties that have evolved beyond the Senate spouses’ book club, Rosen is sticking with her belief in bipartisanship — which seems increasingly unpopular and old-fashioned in hyperpartisan Washington.

Shortly after this story was published, Rosen told The Washington Post she would support eliminating the filibuster “in the case of protecting democracy,” after previously saying she supported reforming the filibuster.

“I will never stop trying to find common ground across the aisle in order to deliver for hard working Nevadans and Americans, but I’m also not going to let obstructionists stand in the way of protecting our fundamental rights as Americans,” Rosen said in a statement. “Right now, our democracy is under attack and we must do everything we can to protect voting rights. If eliminating the filibuster is what it takes to get it done, then we must protect our democracy at all costs.”

But Rosen, who is first and foremost in favor of reforming the filibuster, is not grabbing the same splashy headlines in the filibuster fight as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). Manchin, unlike Rosen, has refused to sign on to a sweeping voting rights bill known as the For the People Act because it doesn’t have Republican co-sponsors. Other Democratic senators have expressed some issues with the text of the bill as currently written, but every other Democrat besides Manchin is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Rosen is quick to draw a distinction between herself and Manchin, who angered many of his Democratic colleagues when he dramatically announced over the weekend in a West Virginia op-ed he would oppose the For the People Act.

Manchin works “in the way he thinks he’s going to get the most traction on what he thinks — and I prefer to work behind the scenes with my colleagues,” said Rosen. “Just because someone chooses to stop in the hallway every day doesn’t mean the rest of our voices are not heard or shared.”

“I’m not a shy person,” Rosen added. “I’m a persistent person. I think there’s many ways to make your position known. And you don’t always have to do it in the public eye.”

In extended interviews with The Washington Post, Rosen made clear she ardently supports both the For the People Act and another voting rights bill named for the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). But she’s also one of the handful of moderate Democrats who is prioritizing bipartisanship and insists on at least trying to pass the largest overhaul of U.S. election law in a generation in a bipartisan manner before considering more-extreme options.

“I think we just have to continue to talk and to be open and allow people to see that healthy debate on the floor, and we’ll just go from there,” Rosen added.

Rosen is far from being the Biden administration’s biggest headache on Capitol Hill, and those who work closely with her describe Rosen as a good soldier who ultimately votes with Democrats. She has quickly become one of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) trusted allies, and currently is serving on six committees — the most this Congress out of any Democratic senator. The workload is a distinction that Rosen proudly touts, and she maintains that her low-key-workhorse style is efficient.

Yet she appears to be part of a dying breed of lawmakers who truly believe reaching across the aisle is productive.

Before Harris’s office confirmed Tuesday that the vice president would be hosting the Senate’s 24 female members for a dinner party at her residence next week, Rosen had been working on restarting the bipartisan tradition. She recently did a joint interview with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) touting their approach to working together, and she now works closely with one of the Republicans who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), as co-chairs of a newly formed subcommittee on tourism, trade, and export promotion. Rosen also co-chairs the bipartisan Comprehensive Care Caucus, created to raise awareness and availability of palliative care, with Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).

But she is still behind Biden’s top priorities. She supports all of the president’s infrastructure plan, and bristled at the GOP’s dismissal of Biden’s “human infrastructure” proposal, even if it passes without Republican support through budget reconciliation.

As several GOP-controlled state legislatures have moved to tighten voter restrictions following the presidential election, Rosen’s bipartisan approach to voting rights benefits from the luxury of having a Democratic governor who just signed a bill expanding mail-in voting to all registered voters, requiring local election officials to send out mail ballots before a primary or a general election.

Not up for reelection until 2024, Rosen has also played point on another big issue: She and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), co-founders of the Senate Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, introduced a resolution last week condemning the rising number of antisemitic incidents in the United States. Rosen, who is Jewish, also announced the formation of a first-of-its-kind bipartisan Senate Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations.

Rosen has also bonded with Emhoff, the first Jewish person married to a president or vice president, over their shared faith. With Emhoff on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue now, Rosen has a personal and influential contact in the White House who has signaled a desire to make combating antisemitism a big part of his portfolio. Emhoff opened a private virtual meeting with Jewish American leaders and senior White House officials late last month.

Tikkun olam — a Hebrew idiom for “repair of the world” — has been a North Star of sorts for Rosen, whose political career came about through her deep involvement in Jewish philanthropy and as former president of the largest synagogue in Nevada. The term, according to her rabbi, Sanford Akselrad, is an idea borrowed from Jewish mysticism “where the world was broken and fractured and our job was to put it back together.”

It doesn’t require much imagination to see the parallels to the way Rosen views her work in Congress. The drive to “take care of your corner of the world,” as Rosen describes it, is consistent with her insistence on legislating with any member on either side of the aisle — even as partisan rancor has further clouded Capitol Hill relations since the Jan. 6 insurrection.

On a more fundamental level, Delaware Rabbi Michael Beals, who blessed Biden and first lady Jill Biden on Inauguration Day, suspects Rosen’s reluctance to eliminate the filibuster emanates from her Jewish principles. “She’s a Jew — of course she understands what it’s like being in the minority.”

“If tikkun olam is about a principled way to be in the world, and protecting the rights of the minority in the face of the majority, then perhaps she might find it hypocritical to eliminate the filibuster because of her agenda — no matter how noble her agenda may be,” Beals added.

In fact, Rosen favors returning to the talking filibuster, which would force opposing senators to speak on the floor to hold up a bill instead of just signaling their opposition to it. Asked whether concerns about eliminating the filibuster stem from her support from abortion rights groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood, who endorsed Rosen during her Senate bid and have conspicuously sat out the fight over abolishing the filibuster, Rosen replied that Democrats need to be “careful what you wish for.”

Some proponents of abortion rights fear that removing the filibuster could backfire on Democrats if a future GOP-controlled Senate is eager to implement new abortion restrictions. “I will never back down from a woman’s right to choose; I think it’s fundamentally important,” said Rosen. “We have to look at not just when you’re in the majority, but what does it do when you’re in the minority? You have to be mindful of that.”

Rosen’s position on the filibuster hasn’t deterred one of the most important political players in Nevada’s history from singing his praises for the woman he handpicked to run for an open House seat in 2016 and then persuaded to campaign for the Senate in 2018 against then-Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) Former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who has called to abolish the filibuster, commended Rosen’s “pragmatic” leadership.

“Jacky’s work with Democrats and Republicans has been remarkably effective and has elicited respect from colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” Reid told The Post in a statement. “Her moral center and her legislative record speaks for itself.”

Rosen’s understanding of what it takes to flip a seat in a purple state has helped her gain traction with her peers: She was tasked this year with leading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s Women’s Senate Network for the 2022 cycle. Rosen, who beat Heller in 2018, will recruit female candidates and support endangered incumbents such as Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H).

The Silver State, which is also known for its production of cat litter, Rosen notes with a laugh, is a majority-minority state — what she calls “a microcosm of the U.S.” — a fact worth noting as Democrats have argued that communities of color will be disproportionately hurt by the GOP’s push for voting restrictions. The state, which Biden won with Rosen’s help, has the fastest-growing Asian American population in the country, and also one of the largest Latino populations.

And some think she will change her mind on the filibuster if it becomes time.

“I would imagine that she would be in favor of eliminating the filibuster for the greater good,” said former Nevada congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D). “She’s a lovely woman, but she’s no pushover — she did not fall off the turnip truck.”

“If the most far-right Trumper came to her office for help, she’d help them,” Berkley added. “She didn’t come into office with preconceived notions or prejudices. But this woman is no fool, and she can see the handwriting on the wall.”