Scott Brown ran for the Senate vowing to rein in government spending and cut the federal budget deficit. A year later, he is open to increasing the national debt limit so the government can both spend and borrow more.
The clash between his campaign rhetoric and voting record underscores the theme of the Republican’s first year replacing a liberal icon, the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
To the frequent surprise of Democrats, and often the chagrin of conservatives and Tea Party activists, Brown has largely kept his pledge to be a bipartisan legislator. He has voted bills up or down on the merits, if not with one eye on his 2012 re-election campaign.
Last month he voted for President Barack Obama’s tax compromise, even though its tax-cut extension and unemployment benefits will add nearly $1 trillion to the deficit. And he could vote soon to raise the debt ceiling from $14.3 trillion.
“Part of it is compromise,” Brown told The Associated Press this week as he sat in Kennedy’s former district office, perched atop the John F. Kennedy Federal Building. “You need to make sure that you move the country forward.”
Such pragmatism has won Brown the largest segment of accolades since he, his barn jacket and his green pickup truck burst into the national consciousness in January last year.
Despite being the lowest-ranking member of the state Senate’s minority party, he upset a veteran Democrat, Attorney General Martha Coakley, in a historically Democratic state. The victory gave Republicans the 41st Senate vote they needed to block Democratic initiatives — including, at the time, Obama’s health care overhaul.
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, a staunch Democrat, recently labeled Brown unbeatable for re-election. Gov. Deval Patrick, the state’s most prominent Democrat, has already ruled out a 2012 challenge, as has Vicki Kennedy, the senator’s widow.
Yet Brown’s votes also spark charges of political expediency; he ping-ponged between yes and no on major issues during the year.
“I really have a feeling that he’s voting very consciously strategically, trying to think his way through how people are going to evaluate his voting record as a document, as opposed to voting how he believes,” said John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.
Potential challengers include Rep. Edward J. Markey, dean of the Massachusetts congressional delegation; Mayors Setti Warren of Newton and Kim Driscoll of Salem; former mutual fund executive Robert Pozen, and; Alan Khazei, who founded the City Year youth program and ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary to replace Kennedy.
A likely target is the $140,000 spike in Brown’s fundraising from the financial services sector last summer as he weighed his vote on a Wall Street regulatory bill. He voted yes after winning inclusion of a provision eliminating $19 billion in industry fees.
While Democrats are still smarting from being caught off guard by his 5-point win over Coakley, they bounced back in the midterm elections and are buoyed by the prospect of heavier party turnout in 2012 because of the presidential election.
Brown disputes Walsh’s criticism of his voting record, noting he also crossed party lines as a state lawmaker. He said he weighs bills on five criteria: tax, deficit, and state and national impact, as well as job-creation ability.
“I read the bills, I make sure that they hit those five parameters, and then try to find a way to either make it better or not to push it forward,” Brown said.
The explanation doesn’t fly with some supporters. Scott Wheeler, whose National Republican Trust political action committee spent $96,000 on ads supporting Brown last January, now wants Brown defeated after he sided with Obama last month and voted for the New START treaty with Russia.
“We didn’t expect Scott Brown to vote to stop abortion, but this is one of the few things he could have voted against to help the country, without causing him political harm back home,” Wheeler said.
Brown once famously posed nude for Cosmopolitan magazine, and he has no shortage of confidence or ego today. The 51-year-old freshman senator speaks bluntly about how he perceives his impact on the country’s political system and discourse.
“I’ve been very, very pleased with the way I’ve been able to help move Congress forward and get them working on issues affecting our economy,” Brown told the AP when asked to reflect on his first year.
“Before I got there, I know they weren’t, in fact, talking and working,” the senator added. “But the fact that I got there and being the 41st senator (to uphold a GOP filibuster), it forced them to talk at times. And other times, I was the 60th senator (to block a filibuster), so we were able to stop talking and just begin voting.”
Brown also is about to release an autobiography, “Against All Odds: A Life From Hardship to Hope.” The story details his upbringing, including his parents’ four marriages and a beating by a stepfather, as well as other negative personal experiences Brown refused to discuss because of a nondisclosure agreement with his publisher.
The book will be promoted with a national tour and a “60 Minutes” segment rooted in three upcoming interviews.
“I actually thought it was important to get it out before somebody else wrote something,” Brown said. “I’ve heard rumblings that there are other books and other things being written, so I wanted to make sure that it was done firsthand, and with nobody taking any liberties that weren’t appropriate.”