Casey, Toomey enjoy rare cross-party bond, respect
By Salena Zito
Published: Sunday, June 10, 2012, 8:38 p.m.
Casey, Toomey enjoy rare cross-party bond, respect
'Obligation to work together' means staying on good terms, even when voting differently on legislation
Pennsylvania's U.S. senators buck the adage that Washington politicians are so bitterly polarized that they can't even converse over coffee.
Though staunch members of their respective parties, Democrat Bob Casey Jr. of Scranton and Republican Pat Toomey of Lehigh County formed an easy alliance early on.
They'll compete next month in the annual softball game between their staffs -- Casey confesses he's still burned about losing 14-13 in the final inning last year -- but inside the Capitol, their competition eases into a friendly professional relationship.
"We have a deep mutual respect and trust for each other, despite having different political views," said Casey, 52, the state's senior senator who faces a fall re-election challenge from Armstrong County businessman Tom Smith, a Tea Party favorite.
Toomey, a former three-term U.S. House member, took office in the Senate in January 2011 and rose to national prominence for his role on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction during budget debates last fall. In April, Toomey succeeded South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint as chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, a caucus of conservatives that includes most of the Republican Conference.
"Bob Casey is a very thoughtful, capable man -- a very good man -- and I look for opportunities to work with him," said Toomey, 50, a member of the Joint Economic Committee with Casey. They meet for dinner with their wives, he said, and share an "obligation to work together."
"I have very pragmatic views, and so does Casey," Toomey said. And he predicts Casey's team won't win this year's softball match. "He better get used to it."
Their alliance doesn't appear to be orchestrated to help Casey's re-election, said Lara Brown, a political scientist at Villanova University. When Casey breaks party ranks, he typically does so not because of political pressure, she said, but because of his constituency or his character as a conservative Democrat and pro-life Catholic.
"He has broken with the (Democratic) Party numerous times over the years, not just in an election year," she said. "Now, if you saw him vote yes on repealing the health care reform bill, that would be political calculation."
Yet, cross-party allegiances are rare, said Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University, "because lawmakers are turning to ridiculous tax pledges and electoral politics to move them, instead of putting the needs of the country and of their constituents first."
One week after Toomey's election in November 2010, Casey invited him to have lunch in Scranton. They decided to show taxpayers that partisans can co-exist by breaking Senate tradition and sitting together for President Obama's State of Union address in 2011.
"Unfortunately, there weren't two seats left together, so we were unable to do it," Casey said. "This year, we got there early and made it happen."
Beyond lunches and symbolic gestures, each senator has crossed party lines when occasion calls for it -- despite the political risk.
"In short, they hedge their bets in this ideologically pragmatic state by working with each other," Brown said. "They are, in this respect, protecting each other even as they work to protect Pennsylvanians."
They've collaborated eight times this year on issues ranging from urging the Environmental Protection Agency to revise a proposed rule that could hurt domestic steel production, to sponsoring the Fallen Heroes of 9/11 Act, which authorized the president to award congressional medals to 9/11 memorials in Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia.
Both now want to fight to save the 911th Airlift Wing in Moon from closure. Activated in the early 1960s, the reserve station recruits and trains personnel to provide tactical airlift of forces, equipment and supplies. Keeping it open against Air Force arguments to save money "is going to be a tough battle," Casey said.
Senators of differing parties might find it easier to work together than House members, Brown said. The Senate's committees are less rigid, its rules give individuals more authority, and they have the luxury of six-year terms instead of two years, she said. "They can focus on governing and not just campaigning."
Though Obama called to ask him not to, he broke Democratic ranks to vote to authorize the Keystone Pipeline, a Canada-to-Gulf Coast project. He agreed with this spring's amendment by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that would exempt any employer with moral objections from mandatory insurance coverage of birth control.
Casey is expected to break ranks again if the Senate takes up a bill to repeal a 2.3 percent excise tax on the sale of medical devices. The tax, which takes effect next year, aims to raise $30 billion over 10 years to pay for Obama's health care overhaul. The GOP-controlled House voted unanimously last week to abolish the tax, but the Democrat-ruled Senate likely won't vote on it. Casey considers the tax detrimental to Pennsylvania's device-makers.
"A lot of breaking with party ranks comes down to being consistent with the character of the state you represent," Casey said. "And ... that comes down to jobs."
Toomey supported Obama's three judicial nominees; two are Western Pennsylvanians and filling the vacancies was long overdue, he said. He agreed to continue funding the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, though Republicans labeled the pet project of the late Democratic Rep. Jack Murtha as unnecessary pork. The center soon will close, however, displacing more than 180 employees.
After last summer's Hurricane Irene, which caused damage in northeastern Pennsylvania, Toomey was among a few Republicans to vote yes on a disaster relief bill. He said he did so after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, assured him the money would be used responsibly.
Casey thinks claims of strict partisanship among senators often are exaggerated.
During some votes on legislation that he co-sponsored, Casey said, "Pat came up, shook my hand, congratulated me on a good bill, and then promptly told me he didn't vote for it. I said, 'I know that, Pat.' We both respect each other's work, even if we don't vote for it."
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