He is chairman of his caucus steering committee, chairman of a key budget subcommittee and a reliable conservative picked for the exclusive — if doomed — task force on deficit reduction.
Those are high-profile roles for a freshman senator, particularly one who hasn’t yet reached the halfway point of his first term.
Caucus leaders have put Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., front and center on some of the most pressing issues of the day.
“He’s not officially part of leadership, but he does seem to be more important than your average freshman senator,” said analyst Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Mr. Toomey is a wonky and low-key legislator who voted with Senate leadership 93 percent of the time, and he is former president of Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative advocacy group and political action committee that funds right-wing candidates. He prefers legislating to showboating, having appeared on national television talk shows only four times since taking over party-flipper Arlen Specter’s Senate seat in the 2010 election. Although Mr. Toomey gained a reputation as a tough-talking right-winger in campaigns, he comes across as a quieter voice in person.
“He’s less of a fire-breather than we would have expected, but if [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell wants to signal he’s serious about fiscal conservatism, Toomey is a natural person for him to lean on,” Mr. Kondik said.
And lean he has.
“By any objective standard, Pat Toomey has risen very quickly in the Senate. He’s truly exceptional,” said Mr. McConnell of Kentucky.
Mr. McConnell said he depends on Mr. Toomey, a Harvard graduate, because he is “whip smart,” even-tempered, principled and well-versed in financial issues due to his six years of trading derivatives on Wall Street in the 1980s, followed by opening and operating a restaurant chain with his brothers.
“Pat is one of a handful of people here who really understand our nation’s economy, so when Pat has something to say, everybody listens. I can’t say that’s the case for everybody,” Mr. McConnell said.
That’s one of the reasons Mr. McConnell gave him a coveted spot on the Senate Finance Committee, although several more senior senators were vying for a seat there.
Earlier this month, the 51-year-old was elevated to chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection.
His Senate Republican colleagues, meanwhile, picked him to lead the caucus steering committee, a post that requires him to preside over a weekly luncheon where lawmakers hash out their differences and attempt to build consensus on issues.
It’s also a place where rivalries can emerge among ambitious lawmakers trying to claw their way into ever higher positions within the caucus and the party. Even in that environment, though, there’s been no obvious resentment toward Pennsylvania’s rising Republican star, said Mr. Toomey and other Republican senators and aides.
“I’m not aware of any hard feelings about the facts that he’s risen so fast and gotten choice committee assignments … and that’s very unusual,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “Often there would be resentment but, in his case, his shining talent overcomes any feelings that people might have that he should wait his turn. We need him. We need his brilliance.”
She said colleagues often want to hear Mr. Toomey’s take on issues before they cast their votes. They may not vote with him, but it’s important to many senators to hear him out, particularly on financial issues, she said.
“Whether you’re a moderate the way I am or a conservative member of our caucus, each of us always wants to know what Pat Toomey thinks about an issue,” Ms. Collins said.
In Pa. delegation, a bit distant
If he’s a leader in the caucus, he hasn’t been much of one for the congressional delegation.
Delegation members and their aides say he’s more distant than his Republican predecessors Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter or his Democratic counterpart Bob Casey, D-Pa., who often would call to collaborate on projects benefitting the state.
“When Arlen Specter was coming … he would call and say, ‘I’m going to be in your district doing A, B and C. Do you want to come?’ I can’t remember Toomey ever doing that a single time,” one member said. “It’s not like we don’t have a cordial relationship. I just don’t think we have a relationship at all, and I don’t think I’m unique.”
Aides to other delegation members said it’s a matter of courtesy for a senator to at least notify members of Congress of events in their districts, but Mr. Toomey hasn’t often done that. As a result, they said, he’s missing opportunities to capitalize on members’ abilities to help him connect with constituents and better represent the state.
“One of the best ways for a senator to understand the state is to depend on Congress members. Santorum and Specter knew that. They were constantly doing press conferences and conference calls with our office to figure out collective strategy,” one aide said.
“Toomey had a choice after the election to be a Pennsylvania senator or to be a senator with a national focus on conservative groups and his choice was clear,” the aide said.
Such criticism surprises Mr. Toomey, who says he always tries to include delegation members and that his leadership role benefits them because he’s able to bring their concerns to the forefront of policy discussions.
“Being on the supercommittee, the first thing I did was convene a statewide bipartisan delegation meeting. I knew that I was going to have an opportunity to influence, and I wanted to be successful on important policies that really mattered to Pennsylvania,” such as entitlement reform, he said.
Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Lancaster, said Mr. Toomey has been more involved than other delegation members give him credit for. He said the senator has accepted his invitations to joint district events, including a roundtable last year with medical device manufacturers.
“He’s very good to work with, coordinate with and talk about things we share an interest in,” said Mr. Pitts, dean of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation who served with Mr. Toomey when he was in the U.S. House from 1999 to 2005, representing the Lehigh Valley region.
Rob Gleason, longtime chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, said veteran senators tend to become more involved with state policy and politics after they have been in office for a while.
“Arlen Specter was the king of politics. [Mr. Toomey] is getting his stride right now. He’s getting around to see the people,” Mr. Gleason said on a recent Friday, just after Mr. Toomey delivered a keynote address during a state committee luncheon in Harrisburg. “I think he’s getting into the same groove that [Mr. Specter and Mr. Santorum] were in.”
On Friday, he was in Cranberry to speak to a local chamber of commerce.
Mr. Gleason said state Republicans have been pleased with the positions he’s taken and with how quickly he’s risen.
“A lot of people thought he would be a rigid conservative and he hasn’t because he’s been making decisions that are in the best interest of the people of the United States and the people of Pennsylvania, so he’s shown to be flexible on certain things,” Mr. Gleason said.
Three principles at his core
Mr. Toomey said he is always working toward three things: limited government, free enterprise and personal freedom.
“Those are the principles on which I feel very strongly. I also recognize I’ll never get everything I want, but if I can make progress in the direction that I want to head, I’m willing to settle for progress, even if I can’t get everything,” he said.
Political scientist and pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College said the senator is doing what voters had in mind when they sent him to Washington.
“He was elected in 2010 when the issues before the public were public debts, deficits and government spending. That’s what he campaigned on and that’s what he’s working on,” Mr. Madonna said.
You can’t legislate on those issues with a parochial mindset.
If the focus makes Mr. Toomey appear wonky and cerebral, that’s the price to pay for trying to establish himself as a serious policy thinker, Mr. Madonna said.
That came through in 2011 when the newly elected senator spoke at a Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association event held as part of the annual Pennsylvania Society retreat in New York City, where lawmakers and lobbyists glad-hand, let their hair down and enjoy gastronomic indulgences. It’s typically a weekend of partying, networking and motivating political bases, but Mr. Toomey famously broke the mold when he lectured the crowd about the Federal Reserve.
“It was like a graduate seminar on the operation of the Fed,” said Mr. Madonna, who introduced the senator at the event. “He’s a wonk and he’s very comfortable with it.”
A welcoming presence in GOP
Meanwhile, within the Senate Republican caucus he has become known for inclusivity.
In his role as chairman of the steering committee, he has actively sought out the opinion of moderates who had previously avoided the group’s weekly luncheons because they’d felt marginalized by the committee’s previous leaders.
“I felt it had become pretty closed to alternative views and that viewpoints that might be different from those held by the majority were not really welcome, but when Pat took over as the leader, he specifically asked me to start attending the lunches again and to participate fully. He said, ‘We need to hear your voice and your views,’ ” Ms. Collins said. “He encourages a vigorous discussion of the issues with differing viewpoints.”
Mr. Toomey said that has been one of his goals.
“I very much want to have a discussion with people that might not share all of my views. They bring an important perspective to the debate,” said Mr. Toomey, who often defers to other members with an expertise in the issue at hand.
“There is a general willingness [in the Senate] to acknowledge a person’s area of expertise, and I’m very conscious of all the areas where I don’t have expertise and I need the input and the education,” he said.
Ms. Collins said he is willing to do the work required to be an effective legislator. She offered as an example the alternative budget he proposed last year. In the end, she couldn’t support it with her vote, but she respects the work he put into it.
“Grappling with budget issues is difficult, and for him — as a very new senator — to be able to get a handle on some of the most complicated budget issues so quickly was very impressive,” she said.
Mr. Toomey had the right expertise at the right time. He came along just when the country was grappling with what’s been called the worst financial crisis in modern history, and he had financial knowledge and solid principles that matched those of caucus leaders.
Mr. McConnell took a chance, and Mr. Toomey has been a caucus darling ever since.
“The supercommittee was really the watershed moment for him,” said Chris Gahan, the senator’s chief of staff. He already was known as smart and principled, but his work on the supercommittee showed he was able to listen to other views, find common good and compromise for the greater good, Mr. Gahan said.
“He was raring to get involved in real policy issues and the supercommittee gave him the venue,” he said. “He always had the potential but when you’re a junior senator it’s hard to find your opportunities to shine.”
The supercommittee was Mr. Toomey’s.
He wrote a plan that seemed to have traction in the committee. He was able to persuade fellow Republicans to go along with a revenue increase in exchange for spending cuts he thought Democrats would compromise on.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called the plan a breakthrough, but other Democrats wouldn’t get onboard. Ultimately the plan failed, setting in motion deep automatic cuts known as the sequester, set to take effect in March if Congress can’t find another solution.
Mr. Toomey is as frustrated as anyone by the failure and by the stream of temporary solutions that keep putting the country one step away from a financial disaster dubbed the fiscal cliff.
“Looking back, I can’t think of anything that I could have done that would have made sense and would have changed the outcome. I was the guy who proposed meeting the Democrats halfway and proposed what I thought was a sensible way to get out of the fix we were in,” he said.
Despite the failure, Mr. Toomey emerged as a thoughtful, if wonky, senator who turned out to be less rigid than many people expected from a candidate largely funded by a right-wing policy group that he once headed.
“He’s more pragmatic, more open-minded” than people expected, Mr. Gahan said. “He’s not that Club for Growth guy anymore. Now he’s just ‘that senator from Pennsylvania.’ ”