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Blunt starts second Senate year at the GOP leadership table

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 1, 2012 - WASHINGTON - After then-U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt lost a key Republican leadership race in 2006 and gave up his House minority whip position two years later, the Missourian's future in the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill seemed to be over.

Indeed, Blunt concedes that even when he took the oath of office as a U.S. senator last January, "I actually didn't have any ambitions to try for [Senate] leadership -- ever -- over here. I thought I was done with that."

But just a year after becoming a senator, Blunt, R-Mo., is back. And Blunt, who started his new role as vice-chair of the Senate Republican Conference last week, could move up and gain more influence next year if the GOP wins a majority in the Senate in this fall's elections.

"No matter who is elected president, 2013 is almost by definition going to be a huge legislative year," Blunt said in an interview. "I'd like to see that all start in 2012." But the political reality of a Democratic-led Senate and a House controlled by a divided GOP seems likely to continue to block progress on significant legislation this year.

In the meantime, Blunt said he wants to use his experience and connections to help improve coordination between the Senate and House Republicans. A key goal would be to avoid incidents like the pre-Christmas debacle when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio -- under pressure from conservatives -- at first refused to go along with a Senate deal for a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut that had been signed off by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. In the end, the House agreed, but conservatives complained bitterly about the process and outcome.

"By now, I think everybody thinks it could have been handled better," Blunt told the Beacon. "I think that's an example of something that -- if we happen to be in the majority in both the House and Senate -- that kind of outcome is totally unacceptable."

Added Blunt: "People will have had enough of a non-governing, non-functioning Congress by the end of 2012. So that, whoever is in the majority -- and I'd like to be in the majority in the Senate -- would be fooling themselves if they don't think that they have to be able to achieve results at a dramatically different level than the American people have seen the last couple of years."

A Seat at Leadership Table

When GOP senators chose Blunt, by a tight 25-22 vote, over businessman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., at a closed-door meeting in the Capitol in December, they turned back a tea-party campaign for Johnson -- and also made some history for Blunt.

Blunt is the first Missouri senator in memory to sit at either party's leadership table; he is quite possibly the first senator ever to be elected to a leadership position in his first year; and he is one of the few lawmakers in U.S. history to serve in leadership posts in both the House and Senate -- another being former Senate GOP leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Some were startled by Blunt's quick rise to leadership. After all, the time-honored tradition for first-year senators -- at times been broken by outspoken "showboaters" -- is to keep a low profile and learn the arcane rules.

But a GOP leadership position opened last year after Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he would not run again for conference chair. And Blunt said he decided to go for the leadership post after two senators asked him, and after he convinced himself that he could help improve relations between the Senate and House Republicans.

"The longer the year went on, and the more I saw particularly the lack of preparedness to work with the Republican House -- an institution I do know a lot about," Blunt said. "I didn't make the decision until I had talked with almost all of my colleagues to be sure that there was really the sense that I could add something to the leadership table."

When he emerged from the Dec. 13 caucus vote in the Capitol's Lyndon B. Johnson room, Blunt walked to the Ohio Clock corridor -- where Senate leaders often meet the media -- and took his place behind McConnell and the other Senate GOP leaders as camera lights glared and a crowd of journalists shouted questions.

"This is not about what happened yesterday. This is about what's going to happen tomorrow," Blunt told reporters, playing down any notion that he and Johnson were bitter rivals. "I'm very much inclined to be a next-chapter guy instead of a last-chapter guy."

The next day, Blunt walked to Johnson's office and "we spent about 45 minutes talking about what he and I thought we learned about the [Senate GOP] conference. I asked for his help and advice and he said he'd give it -- and he has a couple of times."

After that, Blunt said, he talked to every GOP senator who had not committed to vote for him, mainly to sound out their views and find out what he could do to meet any concerns they had. Blunt's years in the House leadership had clearly helped him, as he had worked with McConnell and deputy GOP leader Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and several current senators, including Sen. Mark Kirk-R-Ill., had served on Blunt's House "whip team."

In fact, Kirk -- who is recovering from a stroke he suffered on Jan. 21 -- was one of Blunt's strongest backers in the GOP leadership race. After the vote, Kirk said Blunt "is not only well-suited to the current time, but most importantly, if we take the majority, Roy is the consummate master of majority politics."

In the interview, Blunt said he hoped his relationships with lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol "will be helpful to advancing things that the country cares about and Missourians care about."

As a member of the GOP leadership, Blunt is normally involved in daily discussions and at least one or two weekly meetings. Aside from legislative strategy, a mission of the Republican conference is developing and coordinating the party's message. "The vice chairman's role in the conference is pretty undefined, and I like that," Blunt said. "That means I can define it in a way that I think is the best for whatever I bring to the table."

A major goal is to coordinate better with the House GOP leadership. "We're beginning to work with House members," Blunt said. "I had three different meetings [last] week with chairmen or leaders in the House to talk about what the year looks like, what a specific piece of legislation coming out of conference committee needs to look like."

Another goal is to expand the use of social media in advancing the party's message. "We've met with every [GOP] member already to talk about better use of the social media," Blunt said. He says senators should use Facebook, Twitter or other means to "communicate with people ... in a way that they are most comfortable with."

While there is pressure on leaders to toe the party line, Blunt does not think he will be strait-jacketed by his new position. "I always thought it was a great advantage in the House to be at the leadership table and get to advocate from the very beginning of any discussion my view of what I thought should happen," he said. "And if you are persuasive enough, your view can become the prevailing view of how to move forward."

Blunt does not think his leadership post is likely to impact his positions on bills, mainly because he views Missouri -- with its diversity in terms of urban, suburban and rural areas, its emphasis on both agriculture and industry -- as "reflective of what the whole country is about in so many ways."

A Pragmatic Conservative?

Congressional Democrats tend to view Blunt as a doctrinaire Republican, and the interest-group ratings tend to bear that out. His votes are ranked low by environmental groups, high by business groups, low by social-issue liberals and high by social-issue conservatives.

The Missouri senator, whose office suite was once occupied by Harry S Truman, is a party loyalist, but does not always walk in lock step: A Washington Post analysis found that Blunt supported GOP leadership positions 86 percent of the time during his first year in the Senate, lower than the 90-plus rankings of extreme party liners but considerably higher than tea-party backed senators who only backed the official GOP positions three-quarters of the time.

The term "pragmatic conservative" seems to apply to Blunt, who shows flexibility on some issues. "I would describe myself as conservative, but at the same time I would describe myself as someone who is prepared to figure out what's possible to get done," he said. "And then come back the next day and start to work on what you didn't get done with the agreement you were able to reach legislatively."

"In a democracy, this idea that there's only one perfect way to do anything is a formula to never get anything done," said Blunt. "There's never been a perfect piece of legislation and never will be. Too often the perfect becomes a reason not to do the possible, which makes the perfect a reason not to do anything."

In some ways, Blunt's approach is similar to that of his immediate predecessor, Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., who now works as an attorney and international business consultant.

Bond told the Beacon that Blunt "is doing a great job. He listens to Missourians and he knows what to do" in Congress. "He was well respected from his work in the House and [senators] know about his leadership qualities." While Bond said that Blunt had not discussed his GOP leadership race, he said he was not surprised that Blunt made that move. "My assumption was that he'd be in the leadership pretty quickly in the Senate."

Shortly after Blunt's election to GOP leadership, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., remarked that his achievement in attaining that post so quickly was "quite remarkable." Missouri's senior senator told reporters that Blunt "is someone who wants to get things done. While he and I don't agree on a lot and there are a lot of things that we will always vote differently on, I know that he has tried to be reasonable and compromised only where it won't impinge on his principles. Nonetheless, he knows that we have work we need to get done here and we can on a bipartisan basis."

Blunt told the Beacon that he subscribed to former President Ronald Reagan's approach to compromise: "You have to know when you've gotten all that you can get as part of an agreement, and then lock that down. I think Reagan used to say, If I can get 80 percent of what I want, I'm going to consider that a victory, not a defeat."

Blunt added: "We're in an environment in the country today where that whole Reagan concept of being willing to settle for 80 percent -- we're not talking about 40 percent here -- is [viewed] as a defeat. ... Coming to a conclusion the majority can agree to is the essence of democracy."

It remains to be seen whether that attitude will have much impact on Blunt's relations with Senate Democratic leaders. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the second-ranking Senate Democrat, told the Beacon that he gets along with Blunt and hopes to be able to have a dialogue with him. "We haven't worked on any projects together, but I do know him well enough to have had several good, pleasant conversations," said Durbin "And I feel that, when the time comes, we'll be able to work together."

Among Missouri's House delegation, Blunt -- who for years coordinated regular meetings of the state's House members -- is generally held in high esteem. Liberal Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said he respects Blunt, despite their ideological differences.

"I think he's very effective," Clay said in an interview. "He has made overtures to my district and to me. ... I appreciate Roy's sincerity in reaching out to communities like St. Louis that he never represented before" while in the House. "And I want to work with him to help him better understand our community and the needs of its people."

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, attributed Blunt's Senate success to senators' recognition "that he is an experienced consensus-builder with strong ideas." She also praised him to sticking to GOP positions, "pushing back against the liberal tendencies of a Democratic-controlled institution where many spending cuts and job creation bills passed in the House are simply stuck."

The tea-party backed conservative who now occupies Blunt's former House seat, Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, called Blunt "a very valuable member of the Senate for us in the House. ... Roy is someone I can pick up the phone and talk with. Like when this [payroll tax] deal blew up just before Christmas ... Roy is sort of a land line to the Senate, to find out what's going on over there."

Blunt is not exactly best buddies with Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis -- whose sister Robin lost to Blunt in the 2010 Senate campaign -- but both lawmakers claim to get along. And Blunt claimed that he did not mind that the Missouri contenders for the GOP nomination to oppose McCaskill, including Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, did not endorse him in the leadership race against Johnson. Blunt said, "They have their own race to run. And I thought that [not endorsing] was the right decision for them to make."

Asked his opinion last week of how Blunt was doing in the Senate, Akin said: "Well, I'm not in the Senate yet. I'm working very hard to get there, but I don't really know how he's done because I don't work in the Senate. I know he has immediately stepped into a leadership kind of role, but I don't know the details of it."

For Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, Blunt "is very informed on all the issues, he's somebody you can talk to and reason with, he's conservative, and he's respectful of your opinion." One more thing: "It's great for Missouri to have somebody in a leadership position; it gives us a little more clout."

Assessing Blunt's first Senate year

As a freshman senator in the minority, Blunt's potential to make a difference in the Senate was limited. He sponsored nine bills -- including legislation that aims to make "boutique" gasoline blends more reliable and affordable -- as well as several amendments. He also co-sponsored, usually in tandem with numerous other Republicans, another 204 bills.

While his legislative success on national issues was limited, Blunt feels that he was positioned on the right committees -- especially the appropriations panel -- to help address "the disasters that uniquely impacted Missouri. I think the work that I did -- and, frankly, Claire [McCaskill] and I both did -- to get people focused on those disasters and produced about as good a result as you could hope for by the federal government."

Those natural disasters included the killer tornado that struck Joplin, the spring flooding along the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri, and the summer floods along the Missouri River that struck northwest and central parts of the state.

Blunt and McCaskill worked in tandem to try to maximize the immediate federal response to the Joplin tornado, and he later worked to "change language in the appropriations process, so disaster relief community block grant money, went to the 'most impacted' areas ... I think Missouri got about $52 or $53 million of $400 million."

During the Missouri River flooding, Blunt also worked, along with McCaskill, to organize the Missouri River Working Group of senators from the states in the river's watershed.

"Getting the seven Republicans and seven Democrats who represent those states on the same page, at least for the last several months, is unprecedented," said Blunt. "The response was about all I could hope for, and I worked hard to make it all that it could be."

On national and international issues, Blunt said he has been "pleased with the work of the Intelligence Committee, which -- of the three major committees I am on -- has come the closest to working the way you would hope the Senate would work. Diane Feinstein, a Democrat from California, is a very good chairman of that committee."

In a year that has included dramatic developments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, "it has been a very active year for that committee," he said. "It's the one area that nobody argues isn't a primary area of federal government responsibility: to defend the country and keep us safe."

Overall, Blunt said, he is satisfied with his work so far in the Senate, but "I just don't feel as good about the lack of capacity of the current Senate to get its work done. Clearly, it's better to be at the majority leadership table than it is at the minority leadership table - House or Senate. I think that my side needs to spend a lot of this year trying to find solutions to the challenge to create private-sector jobs."

Blunt said he also want to do his part to make sure that congressional Republicans would be capable of making progress if voters give them a majority in both houses in next fall's elections.

"This year, we have a real obligation to be sure that -- given the chance to govern as a majority in both the House and Senate if it works out that way -- we are ready for that opportunity."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.