Though the sun has set on the celebrated public careers of Arlen Specter, Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania’s last generation of national political giants, it may well be dawning for Pat Toomey, the commonwealth’s junior Republican U.S. senator.
Initially disregarded by many as a bright-eyed freshman with big ideas, Toomey has embraced the full breadth and responsibilities of his high office and artfully emerged as Pennsylvania’s most valuable national political asset.
He’s demonstrated his value to the state repeatedly in his short time in office.
Shockingly appointed to 2011’s congressional super committee, Toomey has remained at the forefront of the debate to erase the federal deficit and balance the budget.
Though he voted against renewing the Violence Against Women Act in 2012, his vote for it in February helped it pass in 2013.
And Wednesday the Lehigh Valley Republican, who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association in 2010 and is considered one of the nation’s most conservative senators, co-authored a bipartisan compromise amendment on gun purchase background checks.
The Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act would extend the existing federal background check requirement to gun shows and online sales.
But private sales or exchanges among family, friends and neighbors are exempt. And any check that exceeds 48 hours without a definitive response will be allowed to proceed.
“This is an unusual area for me to be working in,” the fiscal conservative and tea party favorite said Wednesday during a conference call with Pennsylvania journalists. “But it became clear to me that a bill of some sort was very likely to reach the floor. Several provisions were dramatically flawed, and I thought there was an opportunity to find some common ground with my colleagues.”
That opportunity to revive a bill pushed heavily by President Barack Obama prompted Toomey to begin clandestine negotiations last week with conservative Democrat and West Virginia U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin.
Toomey’s straight talk with Manchin had very little input from the White House, aides say, even though he dined with Obama last month in an overture from the president to Senate Republicans.
And while Obama will ultimately be credited with any gun control measure that passes Congress, Toomey’s amendment has cemented his reputation as a power player on the national political scene who gets results across Washington’s expansive partisan divide.
“If a bill ends up getting through the Congress and signed, I can imagine President Obama in the Rose Garden with Sen. Toomey by his side,” said Michael Federici, a political scientist at Mercyhurst University. “Even if a bill doesn’t get passed, he has caught the attention of people who watch politics, and he’s now on the radar screen in a way he hadn’t been in the past.”
Federici said the fallout for Toomey’s involvement in the highly charged issue will be twofold.
“He’ll incur the wrath of people who are more ideologically pure,” he said. “In this case the NRA and members of his own party that are angry, furious and saying he’s selling out. He’ll have to handle that.
“You’ll also see others who see him as more open-minded and being a more effective legislator,” Federici added. “They’ll have more faith in him and want to work with him more.”
Though not named, he was clearly the subject of a Wednesday NRA op-ed in U.S. News and World Report decrying the provisions of his amendment.
And Tuesday, 76 state House Republicans signed a letter pleading with Toomey to rebuke the gun control talks.
“We encourage and expect you to stand with us to protect our God-given right to keep and bear arms,” state Sen. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, wrote in the letter.
It’s not the first time Toomey, an anointed rising policy star of the GOP, has drawn the ire of his party. When he reached across the aisle in an attempt to broker a deficit reduction compromise during his time on the super committee, many Republicans balked.
At the same time, GOP heavyweights took note and applauded.
“Some Republicans are angry with Pat Toomey for trying to work out a moderate budget agreement,” Ridge, the former Republican governor and Homeland Security secretary told The Patriot-News last year. “To do that to one of the most thoughtful Republican members is a reflection of the [divisive national political] environment.”
If conservative Republicans and gun rights proponents felt betrayed by Toomey Wednesday, Democrats were simply stunned.
“I’ve talked to a lot of Democrats and there’s a lot of grudging respect for Pat Toomey today,” said Philadelphia-based Democratic media consultant Larry Ceisler. “I’m not saying they’re going to support him or vote for him in 2016, but at least today the appetite to take him on is probably a little less.”
T.J. Rooney, the former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party lauded Toomey’s political courage.
“Lord knows, myself and Democrats spent a lot of time kicking him around,” Rooney said of past political campaigns. “But when he does something right he ought to be given credit. And in this case he did something big and right.”
Toomey’s bipartisan amendment, and the buzz surrounding it, was enough to momentarily turn Rooney — a grizzled veteran of political battles large and small — into an optimistic dreamer.
“Maybe it’s a symbol of what’s possible when Democrats and Republicans get together and genuinely try to get things done,” he said.
Ceisler also joined in on Wednesday’s hopeful political reindeer game.
“Maybe Pat Toomey is a throwback to what [Washington bipartisanship] once was,” he said. “Now he’s going to have the credibility and the gravitas to go to some Democrats and say ‘I stuck my neck out on this issue that was important to my base, now what are you going to do’.”
Toomey also drew praise from U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton.
“I was grateful Republicans and Democrats came together to reach a bipartisan compromise on background checks,” said Casey, who recently reversed his own position on gun control. “While I am still reviewing the details, this measure appears to be an important step toward that goal.”
The Democratic praise can only help Toomey’s 2016 re-election. It’ll be a presidential election year and Toomey, who represented a blue-leaning congressional district for six years, will be looking to avoid being swept away on the coattails of a GOP presidential nominee which hasn’t carried the state since 1988.
But those accolades from the left won’t carry nearly as much weight as a word from Rendell, the former governor, Democratic National Committee chairman, and probably Toomey’s biggest Democratic cheerleader.
“I’m working on him,” Rendell said then of Toomey. “I’m trying to teach him, because I think he’s a man of uncommon decency and a man who wants the process to work.”
And Tuesday, days after Toomey’s hush-hush negotiations with Manchin went public, Rendell was among the first to encourage the senator to resist anticipated pressure from his GOP base to bail on the talks.
“We want a Toomey-Manchin bill so we can be proud of our senator and proud that a Pennsylvanian played a key part in reaching the solution,” Rendell said during a Philadelphia rally.
It was a not-so-subtle reference to Toomey standing up to the powerful gun lobby, and its Svengali-like influence over the GOP.
“It’s kind of a profile in courage moment,” said David Urban, a Washington powerbroker and former Sen. Specter chief of staff. “You don’t see a lot of those in Washington these days.”
Asked Wednesday about the expected wrath from entrenched gun rights elements in his party, Toomey seemed at ease with his gun control efforts.
“I don’t think this is at all a change in my conservative record, or my conservative views,” he said. “People are going to have a wide range of opinions [but] I don’t think trying to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals is gun control. I think it’s common sense.”
In another stroke of common sense wedded with shrewd politics, Toomey has also gone to great lengths to establish a bond with Casey, the state’s senior U.S. senator with huge name recognition who aides even say prefers to work behind the scenes with his close ally Obama.
“He and Casey, they’re different,” said Ceisler. “But maybe it’s complimentary. Casey’s in the party of the president and is in the majority in the senate. He’s able to exploit the advantage that he’s been given. Toomey sits there in the opposition party and in the minority, but he has the freedom to make things happen.”
That freedom also carries a broader value.
Political observers say Toomey’s rapid rise and pragmatic politics make him the subject of speculative conversations about bigger and better things.
“If the party follows his lead, it may lead to him having a greater leadership role in the Senate,” said Federici, the Mercyhurst professor. “Some people might start talking about him down the road as a good gubernatorial candidate for Pennsylvania, or maybe he’s presidential material.”