(TNS) — There is a case to be made that the control-shifting results of the 2020 elections could amplify the clout of both of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senators — one Democrat, one Republican — in the upcoming 117th Congress.
Besides the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the big change this year, after the two January run-off elections in Georgia, is the retaking of the Senate by the Democrats. Of course, 50 Democrats to 50 Republicans with Vice President Kamala Harris as tie-breaker is the slimmest majority any party can have.
But, said Jessica Taylor, who watches U.S. Senate politics for the Cook Political Report newsletter, “it is still a majority, so I think it’s better (for any senator) to be in power than out of power. And the fact that they ( Democrats) have the power in the House and the White House also carries a lot of weight.”
That’s good news for Sen. Robert P. Casey, a third-term Democrat who goes from a member of the minority party seemingly destined to butt heads with the Republican president, to being part of a majority with a chance to work with a Democrat in the Oval Office. And some say the shift also may make for interesting times for Republican Sen. Patrick Toomey, who has been called upon to broker bipartisan deals in the past, and whose skills in that regard may be needed more than ever as Democrats try to move some policy ideas with bipartisan support.
Pennsylvania won’t take the 180-degree turn seen so in many Northeastern states, where voters went from having two Democratic senators laboring in the minority wilderness to all of a sudden having two seats at the majority party’s table. Consider, if you drive up the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia to Maine right now, the combined Senate delegation in those 12 states is 22 Democrats to two Republicans — with the only Senate Republicans still standing being Toomey and Susan Collins of Maine.
But Casey gives Pennsylvania a voice in the new majority, and the consensus is that it gives him a chance to make a bigger impact.
“I think it’s really good news for Pennsylvania in that Senator Casey, close friend and early supporter of the president, will definitely have more clout than he did” while the Democrats were in the minority, agreed Mark Holman, a one-time chief of staff to former Gov. Tom Ridge who now works Washington as a lobbyist with the Ridge Policy Group.
This may not be obvious.
It is clear to all by now that, by personal style, Casey is not one of the “Alpha males” of the Senate.
He is not part of the Senate Democrats’ leadership, he’s not likely to lead the league in appearances on the Sunday morning politics and policy gabfests, and he certainly doesn’t have the public profile of the half-dozen or so colleagues who boosted their name recognition with runs for the presidency last year.
Philosophically, outside of abortion policy, Casey is also such a “regular Democrat” that he is not likely to often find himself in that center ground territory where the final votes for many bills may need to be harvested this session — think Sen. Joe Manchin, D- West Virginia, or Sens. Susan Collins, R- Maine or Lisa Murkowski, R- Alaska.
But observers say Casey is a respected member who is known for his strong focus on bills he believes will provide tangible help to the people he’s heard from at his most recent town halls — specifically children and the elderly.
“He is the guy who — better than most in Washington — sticks to issues that resonate in his state, and I think there’s something to be valued in that approach,” said a Capitol Hill staffer from Pennsylvania who spoke on the condition he not be named.
“He and his team are definitely alert to what the issues are in the state... It’s not going to get you on Sunday morning with Chuck Todd, but you’ll be on the first block of the local TV news in every market but Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. They concentrate a lot on everyday issues that matter in the state.”
By unlucky coincidence, even though he now ranks 15th on the Democratic seniority list, Casey also will not get a chairmanship on any of the Class A committees on which he serves — including Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; and Finance — because there happen to be more senior Democrats already on those panels.
Casey will be chairman of the Aging Committee, a special committee that can hold policy hearings and write reports on issues and the performance of government programs but doesn’t actually write or move legislation.
Where he is most likely to carry a little more clout, observers told PennLive, is in the weeds of the day-to-day work of the Congress.
For example, because a greater share of the legislation that moves through the Senate is large, omnibus legislation these days — as opposed to stand-alone bills — any senator in the majority party has a somewhat enhanced chance to get certain priorities considered for inclusion. That could be a legislative provision, or a much-needed financial appropriation, depending on the bill.
“I think he’ll get things into omnibus bills, which is an important part of legislating,” the Congressional staffer said. “I also think he’s going to have a good amount of sway with the bureaucratic agencies.”
One other potentially important note: While it’s hard to tell what it means right now, the senior senator from Pennsylvania does have a real relationship with the new president.
Biden’s family has ancestral roots in the same Scranton neighborhood from which the Caseys hail. During Biden’s long career, he worked closely with both former Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr., and the son, serving two years in the Senate with Casey before becoming Barack Obama’s vice president.
Of course, Biden has relationships with just everyone in the Senate, so the impact of this can be overblown.
But lobbyists who work on Pa.-related interests are hoping the Casey’s relationship with the president, his early support of Biden’s candidacy, and Pennsylvania’s swing-state status will pay off when it comes securing money for projects like rebuilding locks and dams on the Upper Ohio River, which can have an outsized effect on business recruitment and job creation in western Pennsylvania.
“Anytime Casey wants to call someone on the domestic policy council or the White House chief of staff, it’s going to be easier and quick for him,” Holman said. “Your legislation still has to have merit, so it doesn’t make that easier. But the relationships will be good.”
“I think that combination of his seniority status on powerful committees and the relationship with the president, that’s all good,” said Jim Brown, who served as Casey’s chief of staff from 2007 through February 2016. “I think he’s in a pretty good spot right now.”
Casey told PennLive Tuesday that, in addition to general support for Democratic policy priorities, he’ll keep his focus on improving access to and affordability of health care, protecting Social Security, fighting for better conditions at chronically under-performing nursing homes, and increasing money for services that allow senior citizens and those with disabilities a chance to stay out of institutional settings.
“I guess if you had to boil it down to three words, it would be kids, seniors and jobs,” the senator said.
As for Toomey, while he is no longer in the majority, he may still be called on regularly as one of those Republican senators asked to work out bipartisan deals, especially on tax and economic issues, especially as long as the Democrats strive for packages that can surpass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold needed to advance more controversial measures. (Democratic leaders have reserved the option to change the filibuster rule if they sense that it’s the only way to try to move Biden’s agenda.)
Toomey has played such a role in previous congresses — think Trump’s 2017 tax cut legislation and portions of the 2019 CARES Act — and there is every reason to think that he will be in the same seat again.
“I think Senator Toomey is probably going to be a key swing vote on a number of key issues and has the opportunity to really help shape some serious legislation. I mean, fifty-fifty, is not much of a majority,” Holman said. “He’s definitely conservative but, there’s going to need to be that mix, I think, to get bills across the line.”
It will also be fascinating to see how more willing Toomey is to flash that independent streak since he has announced that this will be his last term.
As if to underscore the point, on Tuesday Toomey was one of just five Republicans who joined the 50 Democrats in killing a motion to block the upcoming impeachment trial of former President Trump by declaring the trial of an ex-president constitutionally out of bounds.
And earlier this month, he was one of only a handful of Senate Republicans who said Trump should resign in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack by Trump supporters on the U.S. Capitol.
“He’s honestly maybe the more interesting one to watch (from Pennsylvania),” said Taylor, the Cook analyst, “given that the Republican Party is sort of struggling with its identity. He could be one of the most impactful Republicans.”
If Democratic priorities prevail in areas like economic recovery or, down the road, a major infrastructure funding package, that would be huge for Pennsylvania, say officials in Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration.
They are particularly keen on Congressional Democrats’ stated desire — supported by President Biden — to dole out federal funding to help state and local governments maintain funding for schools and other key services in the face of recession-ravaged tax collections.
They are also optimistic they’ll see a new push for federal action on infrastructure spending, something Wolf has been pushing for through most of his second term, with little success.
“Those two things, if we were able to get both of those done in the next 12 months, I think would really fuel the Commonwealth’s economy and recovery, help putting some people back to work and plugging holes” in the budget, said one administration official who works regularly with the Congressional delegation.
So, the world turned on its head? Certainly not.
But for Democrats in Washington, it’s certainly is a new day.
“I don’t think there’s any question we have opportunities with the majority and a Democratic president that we didn’t have before,” Casey said.
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