Politics gives birth to uncommon partnership

Brown, Frank finding ways to span party divide

‘‘We have very little in common,’’ said Scott Brown, who added that he and Barney Frank have found common ground. ‘‘We have very little in common,’’ said Scott Brown, who added that he and Barney Frank have found common ground.
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / July 4, 2010

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WASHINGTON — It can all be traced to a Fish Pier luncheon in South Boston.

Representative Barney Frank, the face of liberal Democrats, had once dismissed Senator Scott Brown, the poster candidate of Republicans and the Tea Party movement, by saying, “Having an old truck and two daughters are not usually policy arguments.’’ But now, in March, Frank was meeting Brown for an extended conversation, and the two quietly began laying the groundwork for the most unlikely of political partnerships.

In the weeks that followed, the pair would work behind the scenes, on the phone and through aides, to develop a deal that could make or break President Obama’s effort to overhaul the nation’s financial regulations, affecting nearly every bank, borrower, and consumer in the country.

The relationship took on a roller coaster quality, with a deal seemingly solid after the two men agreed on provisions that would help Massachusetts banks one day, but in tatters the next.

Now, with Frank having engineered approval of the legislation last week in the House, the outcome could hinge on whether Brown is satisfied and votes for the measure when it comes up in the Senate this month. But whatever happens with the bill, the surprising effort at partnership provides a unique window into Frank’s political pragmatism, and Brown’s evolution as part of what might be called the Odd Couple of Massachusetts politics.

“We have very little in common,’’ Brown said. “But we have been able to find common ground.’’

One is liberal, the other conservative. One is cerebral and temperamental, the other a triathlete who at times trips over policy details. One is proudly gay, the other known as a heartthrob who long ago posed nude for Cosmo.

“He drives a truck,’’ Frank says. “I think his truck costs more than my Escort.’’

Whatever their mode of transport or ideology, they found themselves seated next to each other in a South Boston conference center on that weekday in March with a common goal. They were among a number of politicians who had gathered to discuss fishing regulations. Brown confessed to Frank he didn’t know much about the issue, according to Frank. Frank said he was happy to educate him.

They should work together, Brown said, and they would.

Seeing eye to eye on fishing regulations laid the groundwork for a more pressing discussion: whether Brown would join Democrats in supporting the massive financial regulation legislation.

Back and forth on finance
Two months after the Fish Pier luncheon, Brown was under extraordinary political pressure. He had just joined Republicans in a filibuster of the financial regulations bill. Senate majority leader Harry Reid was furious, believing Brown had broken his word.

Brown decided he needed to talk with Frank. The congressman from Newton was in the House members’ gym, training on an elliptical machine when his cellphone kept going off.

Brown told Frank he needed assurances that centered on a mutual interest: helping the financial industry in Massachusetts. Frank would have enormous power to shape the legislation once it went to a House-Senate conference committee.

Brown wanted Frank to support a provision exempting insurance and mutual fund companies like MassMutual and Liberty Mutual from certain kinds of regulations. Under a separate provision, large banks like State Street Corp. would be able to continue investing a portion of their money in securities markets.

Brown and Frank both wanted to help home-state financial institutions that they thought should not be penalized like some Wall Street banks. Many of the financial institutions have also been major contributors to both Brown’s and Frank’s campaigns. Brown took in nearly $968,000 from the finance, insurance, and real estate industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Frank, chairman the House Financial Services Committee, has received nearly $582,000 from the industry over the past 18 months.

Frank agreed to insert the measures into the conference report.

“OK,’’ Brown said. “Go back and finish your workout.’’

Frank, still in his gym clothes, walked back to his office to stitch the deal together.

The next day, Frank sent a letter outlining the deal to Brown, who responded by demanding more detail. A second letter was e-mailed to Brown’s aides 11 minutes before the vote. Brown then provided Democrats with the final yes vote they needed to break the GOP filibuster.

“I didn’t make any promises to Scott Brown that I wasn’t sure I could keep,’’ Frank said.

A late disagreement on bill
The agreement seemed to be proceeding smoothly when Brown ran into Frank about three weeks later on the South Lawn of the White House. Brown had brushed off criticism from some of his supporters for working with Frank and other Democrats, and was soaking in the atmosphere at the congressional picnic, thrown by Obama.

Brown was there with his wife, Gail Huff, and Frank was with his partner, Jim Ready. Brown in the past has drawn the ire of gay rights activists, most prominently in 2001 when he said it was “not normal’’ for a female state senator and her partner to have children. Brown later apologized, and Frank said he didn’t bear a grudge.

Speaking that day near the Rose Garden, the Newton Democrat reassured Brown that his concerns about the financial legislation would be addressed in the conference committee.

“I know you’re doing a good job,’’ Brown said, according to Frank.

But on June 25 at around 3 a.m., in the final hours of work at the conference committee, Frank inserted a $19 billion tax on large financial institutions to pay for the bill.

Hours later, Brown protested the sudden insertion of the tax.

Frank adamantly defended the measure. But, he said in an interview last week, he should have brought it up for discussion previously.

“It’s my mistake,’’ Frank said. “I should have surfaced it earlier.’’

Holding out could backfire
On Tuesday morning, Brown said he would vote against the bill unless the tax was removed.

In an extraordinary move, Frank arranged for the 43-member committee to reconvene and strip away the bank tax. Instead, the committee voted to pay for the bill by redirecting about $11 billion from the 2008 bank bailout program, combined with a small increase in bank fees paid to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

But Brown refused to endorse the new approach, forcing the Senate to cancel its plan to approve the legislation last week. Brown said he wanted to think about the matter over the July Fourth recess. As a result, the measure will be taken up later this month.

Brown has positioned himself as a key swing vote in the midst of some of the biggest policy debates this year. But he’s also holding out for every last detail in a way that political observers say could backfire by upsetting fellow congressional members, as well as his conservative supporters.

“From an electoral standpoint it’s pretty smart. From a legislative strategy, it’s going to anger a lot of people,’’ said Garrison Nelson, a congressional scholar at the University of Vermont. “He’s never operated on a stage this big . . . and the risk he runs now is being seen as an attention-seeking prima donna.’’

Brown’s holdout deprived Frank of an unvarnished triumphal moment. After the House passed the legislation last Wednesday, one of the first questions at the press conference was whether Frank could secure Brown’s vote. Much of the media coverage was colored by uncertainty created by Brown.

“I think he’s wrong politically and substantively,’’ Frank said about Brown’s view of the bank tax. Still, he disputed any suggestion that Brown had crossed him. “There’s no betrayal there,’’ Frank said.

Brown, meanwhile, seemed to revel in his newfound influence, repeatedly referring to himself as the decisive vote.

But as the financial legislation reaches the climatic vote in the Senate, the question is whether the newcomer Brown indeed played a decisive role — or in the end was outmaneuvered by the veteran Frank.

As word of Brown’s qualms about the bank tax spread, Democrats reached out to a member of their party, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, who had initially opposed the legislation. On Thursday night, Cantwell said she would switch her vote to support the bill. If all other senators keep their vote the same, and if the soon-to-be named replacement for the late Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia signs on, then Brown’s vote could be superfluous. Yet it could still be crucial if another senator wavers.

Despite the seesaw relationship with Brown, Frank refrains from being too critical of his colleague. There’s always another deal to be made.

“This is what you do,’’ Frank said. “He’s a legislator, I’m a legislator.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at