Alan K. Ota
Barack Obama had wrapped up his final pre-election address to the Senate two Octobers ago and was shaking hands with a group of congressional pages when he came upon a fellow Democratic senator discreetly waiting his turn in the queue. “You’re a little old to be a page, aren’t you?” Obama deadpanned.
Thomas R. Carper says he didn’t mind being the butt of that little joke, because the moment afforded him some face time with his party’s presidential nominee — and an opening to present the candidate with a list of six initiatives designed to reduce the nation’s deficit by curbing government waste and boosting the collection of unpaid taxes. Carper vowed he would be tracking progress on those issues by the potential Obama administration — no small nudge from a senator who’s known as much as anyone at the Capitol for his dogged follow-up.
The encounter was telling on many levels. Carper, who has dedicated his decade representing Delaware in the Senate to reshaping many liberal proposals to give them more mainstream appeal, has gone about his work largely without public notice. His style of earnest dedication has allowed him more often than not to blend into the Capitol background like so many congressional functionaries.
The specifics on Carper’s list were typical of the targeted, if somewhat small-bore, issues he’s long focused on. Among them was a bill to require agencies to be more thorough about reporting and seeking to recover the improper payments they make — it became law last week — and a measure that would give the president authority to reject specific line items in spending packages through a process known as enhanced rescission.
Long overshadowed in the Senate not only by better-known Democratic centrists but also by the other senator from his state until last year, Joseph R. Biden Jr., Carper is now quietly coming into his own as a largely behind-the-scenes lieutenant to Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, tapped to give the ideological center a spokesman at the leadership table.
“He’s very good at working things out,” said Reid. “He’s a peacemaker.”
In the past year, Carper — who honed his negotiating skill during eight years as governor before arriving in the Senate — has taken on an enlarged role both as a bridge to the few Republican moderates and as the de facto leader of the Democratic centrists. He’s filling a vacuum left by Indiana’s Evan Bayh, who annoyed many colleagues by deciding to retire this year after just two terms, and Connecticut’s Joseph I. Lieberman, whose clout dissipated after his party abandoned him back home in 2006 and then he backed Republican John McCain for president in 2008.
At the same time, a handful of senators who have positioned themselves outside the Democratic mainstream — Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Patty Murray of Washington and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin — are in competitive re-election campaigns, so losses by any of them would bump Carper up in seniority among the centrists.
Now, in the final weeks before the summer recess gives way to the fall election scramble, Carper is essential to efforts by Reid’s leadership team to salvage a number of legislative priorities. This year he helped steer through the Senate the financial services regulatory overhaul that Obama signed last week, and he has been deeply enmeshed in negotiations over his caucus’ evolving plans for altering energy policy and mitigating climate change. As a member of the Finance Committee, this fall he is expected to be pivotal to the deliberations over what to do about the pending expiration of many of the tax cuts enacted during the George W. Bush administration.
His power as an advocate for centrists has grown since the election in January of Massachusetts Republican Scott P. Brown — who took away the Democrats’ “filibuster-proof” 60-vote majority and stirred deep fears within the party about its midterm election prospects. And it is likely to grow not only in the final weeks of legislating before Nov. 2, when his party will be wooing independent swing voters, but also in the new year, when the roster of Senate Democrats is sure to be smaller and the percentage of centrists may well be greater.
“He is a real bridge builder. He’s at the center of a lot of things that happen here,” Lieberman said recently. “He’s a voice for centrist Democrats in leadership meetings.”
Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, the Senate GOP Conference chairman, said Carper has won credibility with some in that caucus for promoting “bipartisan solutions, not always with success” with the Democratic leadership.
The question is whether Carper’s often incremental, get-the-best-deal-possible-and-move-on approach — combined with his out-of-the-limelight operating style — will ever allow him to be a genuinely influential advocate for Democratic priorities in a Senate driven by partisanship and generally most rewarding to the more dramatic and telegenic lawmakers.
“He does not seek publicity. He does not pick issues based on how they will play,” says James R. Soles, political science professor emeritus at the University of Delaware. “It’s the mark of a man who doesn’t have his eye on another position.”
For his part, Carper says making concessions is good politics. “We can win every liberal and every Democrat, and still lose elections. We need to appeal to independents,” he said.
Adjusting the Agenda
With their majority as big as it had been in more than three decades, Senate Democrats appeared to have little need for a centrist dealmaker in the early months of the 111th Congress. But the solid wall of GOP opposition to the Obama’s agenda, the president’s declining popularity and the electorate’s growing anger at the way Congress is operating have all combined to boost the call for Carper’s services in recent months.
In the spring, when Senate Democrats turned their focus to rewriting financial services regulation, Carper was part of the small group in his caucus not in lockstep support. Much of the reason was parochial: Delaware’s corporate-friendly laws have long made it home to many large corporations, including banks, and for the past three decades many of the country’s largest credit card operations have been based in the state.
In particular, a proposal by Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse to give state regulators more say in the activities of financial services companies generated concerns for Carper, who led an effort to preserve the standing of federal law to supersede state authority.
Carper reached out to Republicans, including Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Ensign of Nevada, and other moderate Democrats in asserting that such a proposal would undermine the ability of banks to operate nationwide, raise their costs and as a result the cost of credit, and disrupt financial markets.
He pushed to allow federal banking regulators to overrule the consumer protection laws of states, a proposal at odds with the legislation the Banking Committee had reported that would have given state attorneys general wide discretion to implement consumer protection laws. Carper’s move drew opposition from the administration and liberal Democrats.
Unbowed, he worked behind the scenes to fashion a compromise that preserved the federal government’s ability to pre-empt state consumer laws that adversely affect nationally chartered banks and barred state attorneys general from bringing class action suits against national banks. At the same time, it gave the states some leeway to enforce rules set by a new consumer financial protection regulator established by the underlying bill.
In pressing the compromise, Carper broke with his initial GOP ally, Corker. “He decided to get what he could pass,” said Corker, who voted for Carper’s amendment after his own alternative was rejected. “I consider it a glass half full.” The Senate overwhelmingly adopted Carper’s compromise — Whitehouse was one of just 18 “no” votes — and it survived to be incorporated into the new law.
Last year, Carper tried a similar tack when Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois sought to allow bankruptcy judges to adjust the mortgage debts of homeowners facing foreclosure, a process that was widely dubbed “cramdown.” Carper teamed with a group of moderate Democrats and Republicans to try to limit the reach of Durbin’s amendment, proposing to limit the process to subprime mortgages. Durbin, however, had no interest in the compromise, which he complained offered no protection to ordinary families with conventional loans that faced the threat of foreclosure because of lost jobs and the financial meltdown.
But when Durbin pressed his amendment — to what ultimately became a law aimed at helping homeowners stave off foreclosures — it was rejected, giving Carper a somewhat bittersweet victory.
Building centrist coalitions to mitigate more liberal initiatives, though, isn’t the same thing as legislating new ideas from scratch.
This is certainly the pattern Carper
has followed on climate change. As chairman of the Environment and Public Works
panel with jurisdiction over clean air, he pressed for broadening the
allowance-trading system for coal-fired electric power plant emissions. He
proposes stricter limits on a trio of pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen
oxide and mercury. And he has joined other moderates in calling for an
electric-utility-only cap on carbon dioxide emissions.
He eschews the more sweeping approach advocated by Lieberman and John Kerry of Massachusetts to cap all carbon dioxide emissions, arguing that it is better to get what can be won with bipartisan support and build on it down the road.
New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg, another former governor and one of Carper’s Senate friends, says his colleague’s approach is an outgrowth of his time in the statehouse, where his reputation was for rarely allowing an initiative in his portfolio to flag.
After a White House meeting in June on climate change legislation with a bipartisan congressional delegation, for example, Carper pulled aside Obama and Phil Schiliro, the president’s top lobbyist on Capitol Hill, and pushed them for action on the unfinished centrist items on the to-do list he had given Obama some 22 months earlier.