Allentown Morning Call
Among his conservative Republicans colleagues, Pat Toomey is a visionary.
The freshman senator from Zionsville foresaw this week’s debt stalemate within his first weeks on the job, penning an editorial in January and giving subsequent speeches about default while many freshmen were still mapping out how to get from their office to the nearest bathroom.
Toomey, who served six years in the House representing the Lehigh Valley, and another four running a powerful free-market advocacy group, is no novice to the inner workings of Washington. In just a little more than seven months in his new job, he has become the go-to guy of his class.
It was months ago that he publicly sparred with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner over his notion that if the debt limit could not be raised, the government would need to prioritize what would and wouldn’t get paid, arguing interest on the debt should be first to avoid default. Geithner scoffed, calling Toomey’s idea “unworkable.”
Today, with mere days until the nation could default and with the financial markets flummoxed, all across the Capitol GOP lawmakers are echoing Toomey. Conservative colleagues formed a unified front with him as their leader, at a press conference last week. And even the more rank-and-file, like Pennsylvania Congressmen Lou Barletta, 11th District, and Mike Fitzpatrick, 8th District, have mentioned that the nation need not default because President Barack Obama could prioritize debt payments.
U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, a tea party favorite from Utah, said when he’s struggling for a solution to a policy problem, he runs it by Toomey for the “answer you can take to the bank.”
“Pat Toomey is someone who, while a freshman, demonstrates expertise, knowledge and ability far beyond his seniority in the Senate,” Lee said. “If I didn’t know better, I would quickly come to the conclusion that he was serving in the Senate for many years.”
And if intraparty faith wasn’t enough vindication, this week it was reported Geithner was working on a plan to prioritize spending — putting debt first — if Congress didn’t raise the ceiling before the Tuesday deadline.
“When Toomey first started talking about it, people in Washington asked, ‘What the heck is this all about?’” said Tim Chapman, the COO of Heritage Action, a group that lobbies for conservative policies on Capitol Hill. “It was met with not great fanfare … Now they are taking a second look and saying, ‘That guy knew what he was talking about.’ ”
One can argue the merits of Toomey’s policies — a common pushback is that avoiding default on debt means billions in government programs would go unfunded — but there’s little question that Toomey has done as a senator exactly what he campaigned to do: be a leader on fiscal conservative issues.
He’s become a fixture on cable news shows, invited to appear almost daily these days for his perspective on the debt. His singular focus on the issue even inspired one Pennsylvania political reporter to compose a little ditty called “Toomey and the Debt” to the tune of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”
Arizona Republican freshman U.S. Rep. David Schweikert, also a fiscal conservative, said when he’s looking for bills to sponsor in the House, he looks to see what Toomey has attached his name to first. Schweikert introduced the companion measure to Toomey’s debt-related bill.
“He gets credit for being the truth-teller on how the mechanics really work…the debate has moved very far his way,” Schweikert said.
Not everyone thinks that’s a good thing. Steve Bell, a former Budget Committee Republican staffer who helped write four budgets during the Reagan administration, and now serves as an economic director at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said Toomey’s ideas are “dangerous” because the economy is still too fragile to be taking any gambles.
Talking to friends in Philadelphia recently, he quipped, “how pleased I was they sent us a senator so he could play this huge experiment with the nation’s largest economy.”
Bell said what heightens his concerns is that Toomey embraces his economic beliefs like they are a religion. “It’s almost a theology,” Bell said. It’s an act of faith.”
Jason Furman, the White House’s deputy director of the National Economic Council, shares those concerns. Calling Toomey’s plan to prioritize debt payments “deeply irresponsible,” he told reporters last week, “Just because you’re paying your interest doesn’t mean you’re not defaulting.”
While Toomey is unquestionably aligned with the most conservative sect of his party, he’s carved a place for himself that’s connected with tea party adherents — without officially joining their ranks — and maintains the respect of the GOP establishment. He’s partnered with Republican tea-party kingmaker Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina while also having the ear of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“Coalitions naturally form around Pat Toomey,” Lee said.
But Toomey, who never seems comfortable with introspective analysis, dismissed the suggestion that’s he become a liaison within his party.
“I don’t know if I’d use the word liaison,” Toomey said over an egg white omelet in the Senate’s members-only dining room recently. “But I would say I’ve been able to bridge those camps and find common ground.”
Toomey described the lead up to the House’s vote on a “cut, cap, and balance” plan, a bill he and other conservatives had constructed. He had crossed the ornate Capitol building to the lower chamber and met with Speaker of the House John Boehner to lay out a case for scheduling a debt ceiling vote tied to the plan.
“I spoke … with Boehner and what we’ve been hearing for a while is that there is nothing, there’s no package that raises the debt limit that can pass with 218 Republicans in the House, and I said, ‘You know what, I’m not sure I buy that,’ ” Toomey said during the mid-July breakfast interview.
Less than a week later, the House took up that bill and it passed with nearly every Republican’s support.
Sitting in his office, U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, described Toomey’s role in securing that House vote as “huge.” Jordan, who voted against Boehner’s bill Friday, was deemed largely responsible for rallying fellow conservatives against Boehner’s plan and sending GOP leadership back to the drawing board late this week.
“I think he’s just a good senator,” Jordan said of Toomey, “and a good senator is able to take the power of the idea and present it in a constructive and articulate way and bring people to support it and I think that’s what Pat has.”
Toomey also is credited with bringing together all 47 Republican senators to support the renewal of a decades-old debate on amending the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced federal budget — an idea that has since become the central must-have for conservatives in debt negotiations. In late March, Toomey worked behind the scenes and when he’d acquired enough backing on a balanced budget amendment bill, he took his proposal straight to McConnell.
“Once he saw that I’d gotten Rand Paul and Mike Lee and Jim DeMint, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins on the same bill, he immediately said, ‘If there’s anyone missing we can get ’em,’ you know, because that totally covers the spectrum,’ ” Toomey said. “And he did, he helped get the last few folks.”
Chapman of Heritage Action views Toomey as an envoy. While DeMint’s role is to push back against the old guard, Toomey can bridge the divide. Toomey received “street cred” in his party by running unapologetically on conservative issues in a blue state, Chapman said.
“He’s a central player in an interesting way because he’s [associated with] the tea party wing but he’s well respected in the [Senate Republican] caucus,” Chapman said. “He can go there and speak for that wing of the party in a way DeMint can’t … He’s a low-key, no-nonsense workhorse. He’s not very flashy. He can keep his head down and connect with people.”
“He’s got a broad range of support,” agreed Texas Republican John Cornyn, a member of the Senate’s GOP leadership. “And it’s not just tea party support. I think he’s proven himself to be a very smart and credible member of our conference.”
Down to the wire
Four days before the Aug. 2 deadline, Toomey — who has described the Senate’s snail-like pace as “frustrating” — said Friday evening that these debates should never have been left until the last minute.
“I guess I wish we’d gotten to some of these points sooner,” Toomey said. “I’m concerned that the outcome is going to be a debt increase without fixing the underlying problem.”
To Toomey, that problem is too much government spending. He’s clear that he has never advocated for not raising the debt limit, but that to do so, Congress must agree to make serious long term cuts to the federal deficit.
It was widely reported that DeMint spoke to conservative colleagues in the House to convince them to repudiate Boehner’s first debt ceiling plan because it did not cut enough spending or call for a balanced budget amendment vote. They did, and Boehner was forced to cancel a scheduled vote Thursday night, revamp the bill, and hold the vote Friday. And even then, 22 Republicans voted against it.
Asked if Toomey had spoken to House members too, he said, he had. But had he too told them to stand their ground?
Those conversations, the senator said, “are all private.”