Kansas Sen Roberts’ Pragmatic Demeanor Getting Out of Dodge
Historic Quote:“Balancing the budget is like going to heaven. Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.” Missouri Congressman Jack Buechner(R)in the 1980’s. Given what’s about to happen, it’s sure timely.
By Scott Crass
Standing Pat? Philosophically speaking, maybe not.
For Pat Roberts, the senior Republican Senator from Kansas who calls Dodge City home, the accommodating pragmatism that he has exhibited throughout his long political career, is showing more than a few signs of “getting out of Dodge?” Which leads us to the question. What happened to Pat?
It’s not that Roberts was ever moderate per se, though compared to the Republican Party today, the 76 year old would’ve made Nelson Rockefeller look like Dennis Kucinich back in the day. In fact, most social issues have found Roberts solidly aligned with his party. He votes solidly pro-life and is a firm backer of gun-rights (his grandfather rode into Kansas with a “flat-bed press, a six gun, and a Bible.” But Roberts has long been the consummate deal maker and a Senator whose name usually comes to mind when colleagues of either party want results.
Barney Frank once said Roberts “is not one of those impossible ideologues.” Has that changed? Not exactly. Roberts hasn’t done a dramatic shift to the right philosophically. But he has done a quiet leap which does stand out. His votes of late have been cast with a growing but vocal minority within the minority in the Senate, and if it is more noticeable, it’s because in the past, it just didn’t happen.
As a member of the House for 16 years before going to the Senate, Roberts chaired the Agriculture Committee and was fiercely protective of Kansas farmers and rural interests. The most senior Marine in Congress has not hesitated to put on his boots when it comes to fighting the administrations of either party when he felt their actions could be detrimental to the interests of his home state. For instance, he told Treasury Secretary Paulsen, then advocating cutting of Medicare reimbursements to doctors is just “not gonna happen.”
Roberts has gone against his party on a number of bills that he’s sponsored with Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, somewhat ironic as the two were bitter rivals in the farm bill rewrite of 2002. One limited advertisement for prescription drugs and another increased special education funding. Roberts has also opposed his party on issues such as relaxing the gas tax.
The first indication that Roberts saw the necessity to become more ideological was in 2007, when he opposed the Bush administration’s immigration overhaul (which critics dubbed amnesty). That vote was particularly noteworthy because his home-state colleague and much more conservative Sam Brownback was a vocal proponent of the proposal. Roberts was facing a 2008 re-election bid and could’ve been concerned about backlash from the Club for Growth (the Tea-Party had not yet been founded). But at that point, the group had been setting it sights on folks it believed were true RINO’s (Lincoln Chafee, Arlen Specter,
Roberts has since become one of 22 Senators to oppose the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act and opposed Sandy relief and other disaster assistance packages. The latter was truly eyebrow raising, as Roberts had asked for significant federal aid after a devastating tornado struck Kansas in 2007.
Roberts has also routinely been among the 20 something dissensions on a series of Judicial and Executive Branch nominees widely considered to be non-controversial. He signed an amicus brief defending “Hobby Lobby,” an Oklahoma based Christian business that is suing the federal government over preventive services. I 2009, Roberts did vote to confirm his home-state Governor, Kathleen Sebelius to head the Department of Health and Human Services in light of concerns about her background from religious groups. I wonder if he’d be so willing today.
In the early 2000s, Roberts did go against his usual bipartisan bit as Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, but that was less surprising. In that post, turf wars, and defending the institution in power, are common.
Roberts’ move is notable because Senators who would seem to be in far more precarious positions with the right have been taking positions that are antithetical to their thinking. For instance, Lindsey Graham, who has long faced friction with the right and was, at least until recently threatened with has supported many Judicial nominations and is currently a lead negotiator in the immigration proposal (never mind that he has staked out his right turf to others). But Roberts may have been scared off by successful challenges to longtime colleagues Bob Bennett, Dick Lugar, and Lisa Murkowski.
Another factor in Roberts’ thinking may be the Kansas Republican party itself. Long among the most conservative in the nation, the feud between the moderate and conservative wing of the party is as legendary as the Hatfields and McCoys. However, the conservative wing has started flexing it’s muscles, which came to a head last year.
A plot that Brownback, now Governor, supported to rid moderate Republicans from the Legislature (many times they sided with Ds), was stunningly successful. Of nine moderates targeted, seven lost. Seven lost, including the Senate president, Steve Morris, also the President of the National Conference of State Legislatures.One has since become a Democrat.
Roberts’ personal demeanor has not changed. Often ranked among the funniest lawmakers, Roberts’ wit disarms allies and critics alike.He is a master of quips,once noting that putting the federal government in charge of Medicare “would be like asking the Boston Strangler for a neck massage.” He noted upon taking over the Chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee that the title ”is not an oxymoron, I assure you.” He said he hoped for a call from Sofia Loren (“she doesn’t return my calls”) and added he was “lobbying for the ‘hottie of the year,’ but I can’t even get to lukewarm.” He won fewer laughs when he told the press that Obama “needs to take a valium” when dealing with Congressional Republicans.
There has been speculation that Roberts, who turns 78 in 2014, will choose not to seek another six year term. But he has gone out of his way to set up a sophisticated campaign operation. In a general election, Roberts’ fourth term would be in the bag. In his initial 1996 election, he carried every county in the state save Wyandotte (Kansas City) against a well-thought of State Treasurer. In 2002, the Democrats didn’t even bother fielding a candidate. Roberts’ 2008 victory over ex-Congressman Jim Slattery was a little smaller (60% while losing three counties), but Democrats actually put a minor effort into recruiting against him.Roberts does have an announced primary foe. He has little money and less name recognition but some primaries have proven that’s not necessary. In 1990, Governor Mike Hayden was nearly dragged under in a primary against an unknown religious right, but Hayden also backed abortion rights and tax increases, an anathema in Kansas Republican politics.
Roberts is hardly the first right-of-center Senator to very more sharply to the right. I’ve repeatedly singled out Chuck Grassley, who like Roberts has long practiced the art of cultivation. And John Cornyn was long active in the talks to produce an immigration bill. Now, he makes nary a peep on that issue. But Roberts is malleable as well.
On one hand, Roberts may be of the philosophy that unless he adapts to more conservative elements, he risks losing it all for his constituents. That was his attitude as Ag Chair. He didn’t think subsidies would survive so he simply tried cushioning the blow with the Freedom to Farm Act, and by seeking to correct it when it came up for renewal five years later. He might feel that if his votes won’t make a difference, why risk alienating the base. After all, many of these nominees that Robert’s opposes get well over a majority.
It may be just a sad reflection of what needs to be done to survive today. And if everybody, regardless of party is forced to govern by that philosophy, we as a society will continue to see our representation decline.