Brown sticks with reticence on proposals

By Theo Emery and Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / July 28, 2011

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WASHINGTON - As the debt limit crisis escalated over the past week, Senator Scott Brown has repeatedly urged members of Congress to put aside partisan sniping and cut a deal. But he has not offered a clear idea of what the deal might look like.

Brown has said he believes that the national limit needs to be raised to prevent default and that spending should be cut. When questioned in brief interviews in Capitol corridors, Brown has deflected questions about what specific concepts he supports - including whether he would support raising new taxes to rescue the country from default.

When pressed for details, his office pointed to a news account of a visit he made to Springfield, where he said broadly that he opposes tax hikes. But his position on the so-called “Gang of Six’’ Senate compromise - which is supported by several key conservative Republicans - remains unclear.

Brown is still studying the issues and various proposals.

Since arriving in the Senate in early 2010, Brown has tended to wait until the final hours of a debate before disclosing his views.

He rarely grants in-depth interviews on substantive subjects. Reporters typically are provided a few brief moments for questions when he walks out of the Senate chamber after a vote and heads for a Capitol exit.

Brown’s spokeswoman said the senator’s reticence to discuss his positions is strategic.

“The senator is smart enough to know that once he makes his position known, it becomes highly political, which doesn’t play well with pushing an agenda forward for the country,’’ said Marcie Kinzel.

On the debt ceiling, in particular, she added that it would be premature to comment until there is an actual bill.

But Tea Party movement supporters back home, who have been frustrated by a handful of Brown’s votes in which he joined Democrats, including his pivotal support of Wall Street regulatory reforms last year, say they wish he was a more vocal leader on fiscal matters.

“I would like to see a stronger, firmer position,’’ said Matt Clemente, the Massachusetts director of FreedomWorks, a national organization aligned with the Tea Party. “We worked to get him elected. And whether he’s with us or against us, we deserve to know where he stands rather than be left hung out to dry.’’

Added Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, who is scheduled to meet with Brown in Washington today: “We’ve been pretty consistent with our position that we’d like to see him take more of a leadership role and step out ahead.’’

She applauded his procedural vote in support of a doomed House bill that included a balanced budget amendment. She added that Brown’s power in the Senate is limited. “He’s a young guy in the Senate, so we understand how the hierarchy works.’’

Keeping a low profile on issues is not the image Brown projected on the campaign trail leading up to his surprising special election victory in 2010. He ran as a maverick in a barn jacket, someone unafraid to mix it up in Washington and ready to change the way business is done there. He has rebuffed the usual conservative and moderate labels, saying he wants to be a “Scott Brown Republican.’’

As a Republican from a Democratic state, Brown is caught between warring factions on Capitol Hill. Conservatives want to hold the line on taxes, at all costs. Democrats want a compromise that includes a mix of cuts and new taxes.

From a tactical point of view, Brown’s quiet approach on issues makes sense, said Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. “It makes a lot of sense if you are a Republican senator in a Democratic state that for your first couple of years in office, especially at a crisis moment like this in Congress, to just lay low, keep your head down, and wait for the right moment,’’ he said.

But that approach leaves Brown open to attacks by his enemies as he begins raising money and appearing around the state in preparation for his 2012 election bid.

“On something where the entire country is focused on what’s going to happen here, to have Scott Brown be so remarkably unable to articulate any criteria or any position or any focus is telling,’’ said Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh. “It’s a consistent pattern.’’

In response to specific questions from the Globe about the debt-ceiling debate, Brown has issued statements calling generally for a bipartisan solution, seeking to score points by criticizing the tone of the debate, while not addressing the substance of any tax or budget-cut proposals. Last week, after the Gang of Six bipartisan proposal emerged in the Senate - featuring a broad package of cuts and new taxes - Brown called it a “step in the right direction’’ but would not say if he supported it.

“Both parties need to work together on a bipartisan plan that avoids default, cuts spending, and has a chance of being signed into law. The negative politics and partisan bickering need to stop,’’ he said.

Brown’s counterpart from Massachusetts, Democrat John F. Kerry, has strongly criticized proposed Republican cuts to Medicare and other entitlement programs. He has said more than once that he wants a balanced approach in a debt-ceiling deal - with tax increases and cuts. He has expressed general support for the Gang of Six plan, although from a tactical perspective he recently said that a shorter-term fallback will be a more realistic way of preventing a default next week.

Kerry has his limits on disclosing his position, however. Asked for additional details about new revenue measures Kerry believes must be part of a deficit deal, such as raising the age of Medicare eligibility or ending mortgage interest deductions, spokeswoman Jodi Seth provided only a generic statement.

“Everything has to be on the table to have a fair negotiation and the ultimate plan must be fair and balanced,’’ she said.

The Massachusetts Republican Party said that Kerry, in urging an increase in the debt ceiling, is contradicting his past votes. The party also sharply criticized Kerry for missing the procedural vote on legislation known as cut, cap, and balance, a GOP deficit-reduction proposal that the House passed last week but the Senate killed by cutting off debate.

Seth said Kerry had made his opposition to the legislation clear in a floor speech. He was unable to attend the vote because of an event, and his opposition would not have changed the outcome, she said. She said his past votes against raising the debt limit were only cast when there was no danger of default and were taken as a “protest vote’’ against deficits during the George W. Bush administration.

Policy advocates say Brown is leaving himself plenty of room to make up his mind. Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, a Massachusetts advocacy group, said Brown carefully listens to all sides, weighs the positions, and doesn’t shoot from the hip. She called his approach “the responsible way to go.’’

Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said that the debt ceiling is an “enormously potent’’ situation and that voters will have to judge afterward how their elected officials handled it.

“In the end, I think the voters will have a clear idea where each of the congressmen and senators have stood on the issues surrounding the debt limit,’’ he said. “I don’t think there will be a lot of mystery.’’

Theo Emery can be reached at and on Twitter @temery. Tracy Jan can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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