After the midterm elections handed Republicans control of the Senate last year, John Thune had to make a decision.
Would he step down as the Senate’s No. 3 GOP leader, a role that requires strict adherence to party-line messaging, so that he could have more freedom to negotiate with Democrats as chairman of the Commerce Committee? Or would the South Dakotan try to handle both positions at the same time, even though they might pull him in opposite directions?
“I gave serious consideration this time around when it became clear that we had the majority and I was going to end up, in all likelihood, with a committee chairmanship, [about] the role in leadership and how those would work out,” Thune said in an interview. “I thought I’d figure out a way to make them work together. But it’s sometimes, “¦” he sighed, “it’s complicated.”
Thune is forging rare territory as a legislator in balancing these dual roles. The lawmaking giants of the recent past — Sens. Edward Kennedy, Arlen Specter, Fritz Hollings, and Phil Gramm, to name a few — did not have to deal with the polarization that Congress faces now. They all had an independent streak. They made their caucuses visibly nervous when reaching their backroom handshakes with the other party. They had no fear of bucking their leaders to reach an agreement that would finish a bill.
Thune matured as a legislator watching this give-and-take. He helped write two of the biggest surface-transportation bills of the past 20 years, one in 2005 as a freshman senator and one in 1998 as a House member. More recently, as he has ascended to Senate leadership, at least some elected officials have come to view the “other side of the aisle” as enemy territory. Now, one of his biggest challenges is reassuring members of his own party that he’s on their side as he attempts to negotiate complex legislation with Democrats.
“We’ve got people who sometimes want to see me be more of a bomb-thrower, and I think there’s a place for that,” he said. But he added, “In order to get legislative accomplishments, you have to have some bipartisan cooperation.”
Thune has ambitious plans for the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, all of which will require help from Democrats — and some of which will make libertarian-leaning Republicans squirm. He wants to write a new net-neutrality law that will rein in regulators who want to classify Internet service providers as common carriers. Then he wants to go further and revamp the entire 1996 Telecommunications Act. He wants to write new federal standards for data-breach notification. He wants new legislation to balance the competing demands of railroads and freight shippers.
As a Republican Party leader, Thune also has big ideas. The GOP conference is in a “get stuff done” mode, he said in a recent speech. He acknowledges, of course, that the first two months of Senate floor activity this year belie that statement. The standoff over funding the Homeland Security Department and a four-week debate over a sure-to-be-vetoed Keystone pipeline bill look more like petty infighting than roll-up-your-sleeves legislating. But, in fairness, those battles don’t reflect the work of negotiators this year — particularly Thune’s negotiations. They are, in effect, holdovers from last year’s fights. He is eager to get past those and work on this year’s priorities.
For example, Thune sees a grand bargain that marries a major tax overhaul with a long-term surface-transportation bill. “If you could figure out a way to do tax reform and fund infrastructure, you could get Democratic votes for tax reform that otherwise might not be there. You could get Republicans to vote for infrastructure who might not [otherwise], because of the tax reforms that you’re doing,” he says.
As a member of the Finance Committee, Thune is keenly interested in reducing the corporate tax rate and smoothing the overall tax code. That’s not a hard sell in the GOP caucus, but he finds the enthusiasm for infrastructure investment to be weaker. “I’m just frustrated that we continue to have this discussion about borrowing from the general fund and doing transfers [to the Highway Trust Fund],” he says, “because basically what we’re doing is we’re saying, ‘We’re not willing to pay for this. We’re going to hand the bill to our kids.’ ”
The odds are against any of his big plans coming to fruition, but Thune isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. After all, he took on the Senate’s Democratic leader in a statewide election in 2004 and won, unseating then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle in a nail-biter race. It was the first time a Senate party leader had been ousted by voters since 1952, according to The Almanac of American Politics.
Plus, it’s hard to imagine that all of Thune’s priorities will fall by the wayside. True, rewriting the Telecommunications Act is a heavy lift. But cybersecurity, repatriation fixes for infrastructure funding, and new freight laws — those are all within reach this year. And on the bigger stuff, Thune believes that if you don’t go for it, you might as well not be in Congress. “I think you have to buy into it. With anything around here, you could be dead and gone by the time something happens,” he says. “You have to be prepared for a long slog.”
For his hard-line colleagues, Thune has shown he can be tough when necessary, even if it derails a deal. Late last year, he refused to let Democratic Sen. Edward Markey, a Commerce Committee member, make a last-minute change to a satellite broadcasting bill on the floor even though committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller was begging him to relent so the long-stalled bill could finally pass. Markey had declined to offer the amendment (on set-top-box security) in committee, and Thune didn’t believe he should make an end-run around the panel.
“[Rockefeller] was trying to get me to let Markey have his way, and I wouldn’t do that, because I figured if he did it there, he’d want to do it on every other bill that we brought up,” Thune says.
Now he gets to figure out when to stand tough and when to bend in order to make a deal, all while running a committee and creating a GOP message. He says he can do it with “right-of-center solutions” that attract some Democrats. The path toward becoming a conservative bomb-thrower is less appealing, for the simple reason that he wants to do something. He’s gambling that his fellow committee members, and his fellow leaders, feel the same way.
“In the end,” Thune says, “people want results.”