Scott Brown: champion of bipartisanship?

Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts has reached across the aisle in his first five weeks on the job. But his interest in dissolving gridlock doesn't extend to supporting the healthcare bill.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown (r.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are seen before boarding the Senate Subway in Washington on Feb. 24.

In the five weeks since being sworn in as the Senate’s 41st Republican, Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts has often sided with Democrats – and seen some reach across the aisle in return.

It’s a sharp break from the culture of a highly partisan Senate, where gridlock is the new normal.

“We’re seeing a good free flow of ideas,” Senator Brown said on Wednesday, after voting with Democrats to end debate on a $140 billion package to extend tax breaks and benefits for jobless Americans. Then, he voted against the bill, which passed, 62 to 36.

“I’m not supporting the bill, but I do think the process needs to work better – and I hope my gestures do not go unnoticed,” he said.

Indeed, they have not. In a rare move, four Democrats broke ranks to vote with Brown and all other Republicans on an amendment to move some $60 billion to taxpayers in a six-month payroll tax holiday – Brown’s first legislative proposal. The measure failed, 44 to 56, on March 4.

“I think Senator Brown is showing he wants to work with us on bipartisan legislation much of the time,” says Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Brown’s record has also been noted by conservatives, who lionized Brown after his surprise win to take over the seat once held by Senator Edward Kennedy and give Republicans the 41st vote they need to sustain a fulibuster. But his early procedural votes with Democrats dismayed some activists and bloggers, who dubbed Brown a traitor.

Democrats attribute their recent success in moving legislation to two factors: One is Brown’s votes. The other is Senate majority leader Harry’ Reid’s decision to move legislation in small packages, rather than massive bills that alarm or confuse voters. “These smaller pieces of legislation are more understandable, more transparent,” says Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan, chair of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee.

Democrats note that Brown is, after all, from Massachusetts. “If he doesn’t reflect moderate positions, he’s not reflecting the people of his state,” says Sen. Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland.

But Brown says that his interest in helping restore a functioning process in the Senate does not extend to the healthcare bill, which Senate and House Democrats are ramping up to move without a single Republican vote through a process called reconciliation.

Brown joined 40 other Republicans in signing a letter on Wednesday warning Senate Democrats that if they attempt to move healthcare reform through the Senate using reconciliation, Republicans will oppose it to a senator.

The House and Senate plan, still in negotiation, involves the House first passing the Senate’s health care bill, then both the House and Senate passing a package of “fixes,” to make the bill acceptable to a majority of House Democrats. Wednesday’s letter is a warning to both Senate and House Democrats that Republicans are willing and able to strip out fixes through points of order, which require 60 votes to overturn. With 41 votes, Republicans say they are in a position to dismantle the fixes.

“To endeavor to ensure that the reconciliation process is not used to fast-track an unpopular bill through Congress, we wish to inform you that we will oppose efforts to waive the so-called Byrd Rule during Senate consideration of any reconciliation bill concerning health reform,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

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