Don’t count on financial reform this week: Politico reports that the House and Senate will send financial-reform legislation back to committee in order to eliminate a $19 billion tax on banks—and, hopefully, earn Senator Scott Brown’s vote by doing so. The Massachusetts Republican voted for the Senate’s original bill, but said earlier on Tuesday that he opposes the new legislation because of the new tax on big banks. Brown demanded instead that, in order to raise the $19 billion, the bill cut federal spending. Samuel P. Jacobs on America’s most-wanted senator.
It’s been more than six months since the limelight first grabbed hold of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. If this week is any test, it won’t let go any time soon. He’s emerged as the most popular elected official in his home state, according to a new poll. He’s also the object of an unusual kind of Democratic black widow treatment. They’re trying to woo him today—desperate for his vote to help seal the deal on President Obama’s financial reform bill—even as they try to set him up for defeat two years from now.
The dynamic took on new urgency with the death early Monday of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd—a loss of the longest-serving member of the Senate, and a key vote on financial reform. Byrd’s death (and the fact that it will take a little time to replace him) puts fresh strains on the White House’s plans to get a bill signed by July 4—and once again puts Brown, one of the few Republicans the White House believes to be persuadable, in play. Will Brown be the 41st vote for the Republicans, as he promised voters he would be on health-care reform, or will he be the 60th vote for Democrats?
Before he was against the bill, Brown was for it. One early morning in May, Brown followed Sen. John Kerry for a 40-mile bike ride starting out at the Democrat’s Georgetown home. The pedaling—and peddling—worked and Brown agreed to allow the bill to come to the floor. Now Brown has said that the inclusion of a $19 billion tax on banks in the newest version of the bill is too much to bear; it will be passed on to consumers, he says—and he must vote against it.
Democrats in Washington are stuck, wanting to chastise the freshman Republican for two-timing them, and at the same time, hoping that a little more peddling from their party can get Brown back on their side in time to save the bill before the Senate’s summer recess. Asked whether Rep. Barney Frank, the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Finance, could get Brown back on board, a committee spokesman replied, “I don’t know.” The vote is testing the Democrats’ true intention: Seduce, or destroy?
“This is something that he is going to have to make a decision on. Does he want to hold the culprits in the Class of 2008 accountable for this, and have some responsibility, or is he going to increase the deficit?” said the spokesman, Steven Adamske, defending the newly added bank tax.
Brown is also getting heat for his efforts to exclude certain financial institutions—including home-state firms such as Massachusetts Mutual and State Street Corp.—from the so-called Volcker Rule, which would prevent some forms of proprietary trading. For some fellow Republicans, including Sen. Saxby Chamblis of Georgia, the development reminded them of Democratic carve-outs during the health-care debate. While Democrats like Barney Frank defend the exemption, saying it will benefit certain financial firms throughout the country from unnecessary restrictions, financial-policy watchdogs like the Cambridge Winter Center argue that it’s exactly institutions like State Street that need these restrictions.
The exemptions show that “broad policy discourse has divorced entirely from reality,” says Raj Date, executive director of the center.
Brown’s lobbying to create exemptions to the Volcker Rule has triggered some accusations that he’s gone native in D.C.—engaging in the same kind of back-room wheeling and dealing that he campaigned against in January.
“He didn’t figure out on his own that these groups needed an exception,” says Tufts University political scientist Jeffrey M. Berry. “Clearly they came to him and asked for his help, knowing full well the enormous leverage he has. I think he has a bigger upside by working on their behalf than on the downside with the charges of hypocrisy for ingratiating himself with that important interest.”
So the senator who just a month ago was the object of Democratic affection is now facing increasing hostility from activists hoping to hang a nickname on his brokering to rival the “Cornhusker Kickback” borne by Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson during the health-care debate.
The left is after Brown on other fronts as well. One local group, Environment Massachusetts, has been airing a television ad during Red Sox games criticizing Brown as a “Washington insider” for voting to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse-gas emissions. (A national group sent ads up to Massachusetts as well.)
On Monday, union groups led a protest at Brown’s Boston office for his opposition to the Senate jobs bill, decrying a loss of $685 million in federal funds for the state.
Like a Washington old-hand, Brown knows that all the attention is good for the coffers. He sent a message to supporters on Monday, trumpeting his opposition to government expansion and increased taxes and brushing back criticism of his votes on energy policy.
“You would think that if my political opponents were really concerned about the Gulf oil spill, that they would invest the hundreds of thousands of dollars they are spending to attack me on efforts to protect the environment in the affected area. Instead, they cynically attack me for defending the working families of Massachusetts,” Brown wrote.
How best to show your support of the senator? Send 100 bucks his way, he says.
Like all Republicans these days, Brown also needs to worry about his right flank. Indeed, Brown, who needs to balance the national pressures pushing his party to the right with the moderate tendencies of Massachusetts’ electorate, has felt the wrath of the right over his decision to back one of Obama’s jobs bills. Even Howie Carr, a well-known Boston conservative provocateur, felt the need to turn his column in Sunday’s Boston Herald into a plea with the Tea Party to give the Republican senator a chance. “Come on, this ain’t the high-school prom,” Carr scolded conservatives who now tar Brown with the “Republican in Name Only” label for siding with the Democrats on key votes. “You think Scott Brown is your enemy?” Carr concluded, “Wake up.”
Still, all the crossfire doesn’t seem to be hurting Brown—yet. The latest Boston Globe poll shows Brown with a favorability rating of 55 percent—and a surprisingly low unfavorability rating of just 18 percent. Besides, Democrats anxious to get a jump on 2012 and avenge Brown’s defeat of Martha Coakley have their hands full this fall with a surging Charlie Baker, threatening the reelection prospects of Gov. Deval Patrick.
The secret to Brown’s success thus far is keeping Massachusetts’ independents happy. The financial-reform bill may be the biggest test yet of his ability to hold on to their support.
“Scott Brown is straddling a fence right now,” Marsh says. “Sometimes voters really like that, and sometimes there is a painful ending. We will see which side of the fence he comes down on.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.