It’s 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 17, and the vote on his bill to expand background checks isn’t until the afternoon, but Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is already conducting an autopsy. “Now, I haven’t had the chance to do a full postmortem, but we were under a lot time pressure,” he says, as we talk over coffee at a Capitol Hill restaurant. “If we had had the luxury and time to roll this out differently, maybe we would have ended up in a better place.”
Toomey knew by Tuesday night that his proposal, which he co-sponsored with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, was dead. A handful of his GOP colleagues — Susan Collins (Maine), John McCain (Ariz.), and Mark Kirk (Ill.) — were supportive, but most Senate Republicans told him they’d oppose it. Toomey sighs as he recalls their explanations. “It’s been a little frustrating,” he says. “All of the misinformation — and there was a lot of it — wasn’t helpful.”
The National Rifle Association, especially, irks him. As Toomey laments ahead of the vote, he wonders aloud why the group — which once supported expanded background checks — now thinks they’re a threat to the Second Amendment. “The Republican base is prepared to believe the worst about this bill,” he says. “Yet back in 1999, the NRA, Republicans, and conservatives voted for a bill like this, and that bill didn’t have the protections for gun owners that are included in our bill. A national gun registry is explicitly excluded — it’s illegal — but that seems to be a fact that people have chosen to overlook.”
Ultimately, the Toomey-Manchin amendment failed by a 54–46 vote, falling short of the 60-vote threshold needed to stop a filibuster. For Toomey, however, the vote was more than a legislative stumble; it underscored the evolution of a conservative favorite.
For the past decade, Toomey has been known as a right-wing agitator — a three-term congressman who famously challenged moderate Republican Arlen Specter in a 2004 Senate primary. The 51-year-old Harvard graduate is also a former president of the Club for Growth, a group that often fights the Republican establishment. But Toomey’s recent bipartisan work on gun control, among other issues, has turned the freshman senator into an unexpected pragmatist.
In a Senate full of rabble-rousers who are cheered for repeatedly saying no, Toomey has become the rare conservative Republican viewed by Democrats as a reasonable behind-the-scenes negotiator. While other Republican senators have tried to build bipartisan consensus by focusing on a single bill at a time, such as such as Marco Rubio on immigration, Toomey has devoted himself to attempting to broker deals on several issues, and he’s forged relationships with Democrats, from moderates like Manchin to liberals such as Chuck Schumer. Even President Obama has personally reached out to Toomey over a private dinner and phone calls.
Toomey tips his hat to Schumer for his knack of doing something that’s quite difficult in the Senate: convincing his members to settle for half a loaf. “I’ve got to tell you, most liberals have absolutely zero enthusiasm for my bill with Senator Manchin,” he says. “They wanted to do more background checks, and they hate the parts that ensure that gun owners are protected. But Chuck Schumer was able to get those guys. He was able to say, ‘I know you hate it, but from our point of view, it’s better than what we have now, so you should take it.’”
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.
Though he has long lived in the Allentown, Pa., suburbs, Toomey grew up in a working-class Catholic home in Providence, R.I. His parents were Democrats, and, according to Philadelphia magazine, “a portrait of John F. Kennedy hung from the wall in the family kitchen.” He earned a scholarship to an elite private school and then went on to Harvard before landing on Wall Street, where he worked as an investment banker. After spending a year in Hong Kong working in the capital markets, he moved home to start a sports bar with his brothers. A few years later, he decided to run for Congress.
Ever since, Toomey has been one of those Republicans whom conservatives have happily supported. He is a fiscal hawk and pro-life, and he was unafraid of angering President George W. Bush and his allies when he decided nine years ago to challenge Specter. He came within a few thousand votes of beating the veteran incumbent, and his decision six years later to go for a rematch was one of the reasons that Specter flipped parties during the primary campaign. During his time at the Club for Growth, he wrote blunt editorials about Republican hypocrisy on spending and taxes, and supported the primary campaigns of conservative outsiders.
Toomey is well aware that his work on gun control might threaten his popularity with some conservatives, who question his willingness to blend pragmatic politics with tea-party principles. But he’s ready for the heat. “You know this isn’t the first time in my career that I’ve gotten media scrutiny,” he says with a smile, referring to the first Specter race. “We’ve had more calls to my Senate office over the past week than I’ve had during any other time during my term, and the majority of them have been negative. There has been encouragement, too, but I know people are concerned.”
Pennsylvania operatives say Toomey may catch flak from conservatives, but in the vote-rich and moderate counties surrounding Philadelphia, he probably has won some new fans, which is an important development. After all, Pennsylvania is looking increasingly blue; though once purple, it hasn’t backed a Republican presidential nominee since 1988. To win reelection in three years — a presidential-election year — he needs to woo those hundreds of thousands of suburban centrists who elected Specter to the Senate for decades, but who have since drifted to the left. Toomey has never been loved by those voters, and in 2010, a Republican wave year, he won by only two percentage points.
But as he woos the moderates, he’ll have to heal the conservative wounds. On Friday, Toomey defended his amendment as he spoke to conservatives at a Pennsylvania leadership conference, and he was careful about how he discussed it. “I totally understand that my Democratic colleagues have a profoundly misguided political philosophy,” he explained. “But even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and again.” According to a PoliticsPA report, the reception to Toomey was warm but hardly rousing. “I want you to know, I intend to turn my attention back to my usual wheelhouse,” he added. “I’m going to focus on pushing back a government that is the main reason we have a miserable economy.”
Nevertheless, for all his conservative bona fides through the years, and despite his perfect rating from the American Conservative Union, Toomey might face a primary challenge in 2016. The NRA obviously isn’t pleased with his push for expanded background checks, though it endorsed him in 2010 and has long awarded him an “A” rating. The Campaign for Liberty, a libertarian group, recently called Toomey “Benedict Toomey” for doing the bidding of liberal Democrats. Last week, Saturday Night Live comedian Bill Hader parodied Toomey as “a Republican who is willing to make the slightest compromise [and likely] to lose his job.”
“As you’d expect, I’m in bed during Saturday Night Live, so I woke up on Sunday, went to my computer, and watched it,” Toomey says. “I thought the guy who played me was pretty good, actually. But the best thing about it was when my wife turned to me and said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re much better looking than the guy who played you.’”
For Toomey, it was a moment of levity in a trying week. Angry calls were flooding his office, and the NRA was trying to destroy his bill. Soon after, the Senate defeated it — in spite of the many days he had spent whipping his colleagues. “Look, I don’t have any regrets,” he says. “This was tough, but all along, I never said this plan was going to be a panacea. I was just trying to make things better around the margins.” These days, that’s where he works.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.