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Sen. Tom Carper has for years worked quietly to build consensus on some of the Senate’s most vexing issues. But this year, the two-term Delaware Democrat has finally achieved legitimacy as a deal-maker, being asked by his leadership to explore a critical deal on health care reform.  

“I truly enjoy building consensus across party lines. It gives me a great deal of personal satisfaction,” Carper said Tuesday. “I come from an environment of getting things done.”  

Unassuming and somewhat obscure, Carper has often tried to be a consensus maker, but he has struggled to find his niche. He isn’t as charismatic or outgoing as some of his fellow centrists, nor is he as partisan as his colleagues in leadership.  

But his style is finally paying dividends. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently tasked Carper to help draft a compromise proposal on the public insurance option, the issue that most threatens to derail health care reform this year. It’s probably not lost on Reid that each time it seemed as if health care reform might stall this year because of a disagreement among Democrats — whether in the Finance Committee or within the broader Conference — Carper has raised his hand to try to bridge the gap.  

Those who know the former two-term governor and state treasurer are not surprised.  

“I think Tom is always looking to try to put people together,” said Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), who first met Carper in late 1998 when Johanns was governor-elect of the Cornhusker State and Carper headed the National Governors Association. “The Tom Carper I’ve always known — from then to now — has been pragmatic, a consensus-builder and open to new ideas.”  

Johanns said that Carper, despite his career in public office, isn’t necessarily interested in the limelight. And, he said, Carper is happy to help broker a deal but let others take the credit.  

“He’s not a guy that has to have a news conference every day,” Johanns said.  

Carper is more inclined to talk about his ideas for improving the health care system than how the Democrats are going to find the 60 votes they need to pass a bill.
 
At the same time, however, Carper isn’t naive about politics or vote counting. He said he has repeatedly warned his Democratic colleagues about the perils of going it alone on health care reform, saying his party would “rue the day” it did not do everything it could to garner the support of moderate GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine). Snowe has several concerns with the Senate bill and has said she will not vote to end debate on it unless significant changes are made.  

Carper, who also has tried to build consensus on other high-profile issues such as climate change and the economic stimulus package approved earlier this year, has been working closely with Snowe on health care reform. Those talks continue, Snowe confirmed Tuesday.  

“I’m not giving up on having a couple of Republicans vote for this bill,” Carper said, adding that spurning Snowe on health care would make it even harder to do business with Republicans on climate change and other controversial issues.  
Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), who spent years as chief of staff to then-Sen. and now-Vice President Joseph Biden, said Carper is bright and pragmatic, and has brought to the health care fight the same qualities he has displayed for years to his constituents.  

“He’s indefatigable. He’s very, very smart and he works very, very hard. Once he gets his idea on something, he is incredible focused. He’s just like a bulldog, so I’m not surprised,” Kaufman said. “He’s like the Energizer bunny.”