By William Douglas
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — With a bill to ban discrimination teetering precariously last week, Sen. Patrick Toomey approached Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Toomey, of Pennsylvania, one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate, secured a deal with the liberal Democratic leader to provide a much-needed vote to advance the proposal to ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in return for a vote on Toomey’s proposal to expand the bill’s religious exemption clause.
His amendment failed. But Toomey still was one of only 10 Republicans who voted for the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a move that illustrates the path he’s taken since being elected to the Senate amid a conservative tea party wave in 2010.
While fellow Republicans such as Ted Cruz, of Texas, and Rand Paul, of Kentucky, blaze political trails — and possible presidential runs — as uncompromising conservative firebrands, Toomey is carving out a reputation as a steady-as-he-goes pragmatist who works with Democrats while maintaining his conservative credentials.
“I’m trying to make progress,” Toomey said. “Some would suggest we (Republicans) could try to do nothing, or we could try to find where there is common ground and try to make progress where we can. I’m in the camp of making progress where we can.”
It’s an overture to a blue Pennsylvania, where registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 1.1 million last year. Toomey won his seat by only 2 points and the man he defeated, former Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., appears to be gearing up for a 2016 rematch.
“The perception Toomey gives is that he’s not an extremist, that he’s an individual who’ll cross party lines,” said Michael Federici, a political science professor at Pennsylvania’s Mercyhurst University. “To win, you’ve got to hold your base and appeal to more independents; that’s the name of the game in Pennsylvania. And his strategy has been brilliant because it’s a fine line to walk not to alienate independent voters.”
Even Sen. Tim Kaine, of Virginia, the former Democratic Party chair who excoriated Toomey in the 2010 campaign as an inflexible right-wing tool of Wall Street who’d make staunch conservative former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., look like “a moderate,” calls himself a Toomey fan.
The two are on the bipartisan Senate/House of Representatives budget conference committee that was tasked after last month’s partial government shutdown with hammering out a deal to avert another fiscal showdown
“I view him as somebody who seriously wants to find a path to a deal,” Kaine said. “We have differences of opinion on a whole lot of things, but in terms of seriousness that he brings, the intellect he brings and the sort of civility, he’s a good person to deal with.”
Toomey’s balancing act isn’t easy. While Washington Democrats and gay rights groups praised him for his vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, some conservative organizations chided him for seemingly caving in
“This is bad public policy,” said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the conservative Faith & Freedom Coalition.
The Pennsylvania Democratic Party wasn’t impressed, either. “Tea Party Pat Toomey is one of America’s most out-of-touch extreme Tea Partiers and his record on LGBT rights is appalling,” the party said in a statement. It charges that he’s a true conservative in moderate’s clothing.
Although Toomey considered it a “bad idea” for Republicans to try to link funding the federal government to defunding President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, he was one of 18 Senate Republicans - including Cruz - who voted against the bipartisan compromise that reopened the government and increased the nation’s borrowing authority.
Toomey acknowledged that his vote received a mixed reaction back home, but he continued to defend it vigorously last week.
“I just couldn’t support adding several hundred billions of dollars of debt and doing nothing whatsoever about the underlying problem that’s causing all that debt, and that’s why I voted no,” he said.
The National Journal ranked Toomey as the fourth-most-conservative Republican senator, with a score of 92.8, just below then-South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint’s 93.5.on the publication’s conservative meter.
Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, took him to task for co-sponsoring a failed gun-control amendment that would have required tougher background checks on many gun sales and for supporting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Violence Against Women Act and another gun control measure that was introduced after the school shootings last December in Newtown, Conn.
“I think Sen. Toomey has done a lot that’s good, but we weren’t for his amendment,” Dan Holler, a Heritage Action spokesman, said of the background checks measure, co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “If he’s comfortable going home and explaining that position, more power to him. If you’re comfortable with your voting record, you don’t have a problem.”
Toomey says he’s comfortable. He says he’s the same fiscal conservative who challenged the late Sen. Arlen Specter in a Republican primary in 2004 and almost defeated him, and whose threatened rematch in 2010 drove Specter from the party. Toomey also says he’s the same advocate of small government who headed the Club for Growth, a group that’s at the forefront in opposing the health-care law.
“For me, the central mission of my role in the Senate is to try to encourage policy that will restore economic growth and prosperity, and that means expanding opportunity in a free enterprise system,” he said. “Obviously, people will disagree about any given vote, but I think people recognize that I’m consistently pursuing exactly what I said I would pursue during the campaign.”