WASHINGTON – Republican Scott Brown owes his election in part to the public furor over the so-called Cornhusker Kickback, the backroom deal that Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska struck for his vote to pass the health care bill. Now he is following Nelson's example, winning concessions in the financial overhaul bill on behalf of Massachusetts banks.
The "Massachusetts Miracle" who delivered Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat to Republicans is now wheeling and dealing with both parties and hinting that he just might vote with Democrats if they agree to goodies for financial institutions in his state.
It's an instructive look this midterm election year at how quickly a candidate who campaigned against "closed-door meetings" and "backroom deals" can learn to craft them once in office.
Brown scored an exemption for home-state interests like Fidelity Investments and the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. from some new restrictions on trading. He also persuaded congressional negotiators to let banks invest up to 3 percent of their capital in private equity funds and hedge funds, a change that would help such banks as Boston-based State Street Corp.
Then this week, Democrats bowed to a more philosophical demand that knowledgeable officials say was choreographed by Republican leader Mitch McConnell. On Tuesday, Democratic negotiators agreed to remove a $19 billion tax on large banks and hedge funds after Brown threatened to vote "no" because of it.
Brown wouldn't say whether the concession was enough to win his vote. And he made clear that he wouldn't make that decision in time to pass the bill and deliver it to President Barack Obama by Independence Day.
"Over the July recess, I will continue to review this important bill," Brown said in a statement.
Advocates of the bill to rein in Wall Street were casting Brown's dealmaking as a shift from underdog candidate in a pickup truck to something more amorphous. The Massachusetts branch of Americans for Financial Reform planned a news conference to try to present him Thursday with a new BMW.
"Since Sen. Brown is willing to gamble with American consumers, he's sending the signal that he wants to trade in his iconic truck for something a little more luxurious, something more in line with the kinds of cars that his Wall Street cronies are driving," the group said in a press release.
Gail Gitcho, Brown's spokeswoman, defended the senator's actions, describing them as fighting for improvements in the bill for the entire country, not just Massachusetts, and for firms everywhere that didn't contribute to the financial crisis.
"Throughout it all, he has been very open and transparent about what he is trying to accomplish," Gitcho said. "Scott Brown remains committed to putting in place safeguards to prevent another financial meltdown, ensure that consumers are protected, jobs are protected, banks can't act like casinos anymore, and that this bill is paid for without new taxes."
Senators advocate for the people and businesses in their states all the time and even set aside federal funds for specific purposes called "earmarks." Such deals earn lawmakers goodwill and campaign donations back home, but fairly or not they've acquired an unpopular image in the era of massive financial bailouts and health care reform.
There's no sign yet that Brown's maneuvering has hurt him back home. A poll for the Boston Globe conducted in mid-June showed the former centerfold model is the most popular officeholder in Massachusetts, with 55 percent of respondents holding a favorable view of him.
Safe in the Bay State, he faces little downside for playing hardball with the big boys in Washington on financial reform, for now.
The Senate's arithmetic, its polarization and happenstance — the death of Democrat Robert C. Byrd this week — gives this most junior of senators outsized power in the seniority-driven chamber. As soon as West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin appoints a successor to Byrd, Brown's power becomes a little less.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Andrew Miga contributed to this report.