Toomey’s Lament
A conservative deal-maker clashes with political reality — and the Right.

Pat Toomey (R., Pa.)


Robert Costa

What makes Toomey different from most Republican senators who frequently work across the aisle, such as McCain or Lindsey Graham, is how he has yet to acquire that feared “RINO” tag — “Republican in name only.” He is also much more of a force within the Republican cloakroom than the big-name deal-makers are. He’s an informal counselor to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who regularly asks Toomey about the pulse of the conference’s right flank; and last year, he was elected chairman of the steering committee, a conservative caucus previously chaired by Jim DeMint, the new president of the Heritage Foundation.

“It’s about a determined search for common ground,” Toomey says, reflecting on his first two-plus years in the Senate. “I know what I want to achieve, and I’m constantly looking for somebody on the other side who has some overlap. If we can find that overlap, then I want to run with it. But it’s also an acceptance that I’m not going to get everything I want. Sometimes I want to go a lot further, but to get something good passed, you can’t do that.”

Senate aides say Toomey’s ability to navigate both the Republican conference and the broader Senate without making enemies is a reflection of his personality. Though his views on most issues are deeply conservative, he’s a terse but friendly former banker who reviews legislation coolly. “He doesn’t play games — I think that’s why you see a lot of people respect him,” says a senior Republican staffer. “Every conservative remembers how he almost beat Specter. On the right, he is given a lot of room to roam.”

Of course, Toomey knows that he has only so much rope for rappelling to the political center. In a telling story in last week’s Philadelphia Inquirer, insiders whispered that Toomey had made it clear to Schumer that he didn’t want the the liberal big shot to share the stage with him at the press conference announcing the gun-control bill, even though Schumer had been instrumental in crafting the legislation. Schumer reportedly told Toomey that he understood the decision. The two lawmakers may be ideological opposites, but they’re both operators, and they understand how an image can calcify into conventional wisdom.

McConnell recognized Toomey’s unique skills early on and tapped him for a spot on the “super committee” in August 2011. From there, Toomey helped lead the Senate GOP’s bargaining on fiscal issues and worked through the highly charged politics of entitlement reform. Earlier this year, he earned a spot on the Senate Finance Committee, where insiders tout him as a future chairman. He’s also written his own federal budget plan that’s entirely separate from the official Republican proposal. And as the next battle — tax reform — nears, Toomey is a leading player.