When Pat Toomey joined the Senate in 2011, he arrived as part of a Republican wave elected to curtail President Barack Obama’s agenda.
Now Toomey is entering what are likely his final two years in public office against a more complicated political backdrop: with potentially more individual influence, but also a Democratic president and a narrowly divided Senate where any major legislation will face a daunting gauntlet.
If Republicans hold the Senate after runoff elections in Georgia next month, Toomey is in line to become banking committee chairman, giving him a platform to shape key economic policies. Yet Toomey, who announced in October that he won’t seek reelection in 2022, will ultimately need soon-to-be President Joe Biden to sign off on his initiatives (and he has a list).
At the same time, the Biden administration will almost certainly need Republican votes to advance its proposals. And Toomey — freed from electoral pressure, one of the few Republicans to openly acknowledge Biden’s win, and who at times has shown an eye for a deal — could be a swing vote on some issues, potentially putting himself in a pivotal spot on a handful of topics.
Toomey made clear last week that he’s sure to oppose most of Biden’s big efforts. But when he spoke to the president-elect early this month, Toomey said, they discussed issues where they might find common ground.
“I congratulated him on his win and I went through” some of the areas “where we could work together,” Toomey said in an interview. “We had a very pleasant conversation.”
Toomey said he would give Biden deference when it comes to confirming cabinet picks — a once-routine gesture that’s become notable in an intensely divided Senate. And he spoke to Biden about collaborating on international trade agreements after four years of President Donald Trump’s trade wars.
But Toomey is firmly against some of Biden’s aims, including raising taxes on the wealthy and reimposing some regulations. He’d oppose reentering the Iran nuclear deal and expressed opposition to some key elements under consideration for a new coronavirus relief bill.
“I strongly disagree with Joe Biden on the vast majority of policy positions. That’s why I voted for Donald Trump,” Toomey said. “So I’m going to be constructive and cooperative, but I’m a conservative and Joe Biden’s not, so we just have to see.”
Toomey, long driven by advancing conservative economic policy, is deliberative and strategic in making his political moves, and that seems unlikely to change.
“He’ll pick his fights carefully and he’ll be selective,” said Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman who represented Toomey’s home district, in the Allentown area. “I don’t think you’ll see him jump on every issue. ... But he’ll pick the issues where he thinks he can make an impact.”
Toomey’s critics scoff at the idea that he will build bridges.
“When it serves his purposes, he will give lip service to being a moderate,” said Carolyn Stillwell, one of the organizers of Tuesdays with Toomey, a liberal group that has organized protests against the senator for years.
Still, Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), a Biden ally seen as an unofficial ambassador to the Senate GOP, recently told Politico he saw Toomey as a Republican he can work with.
“The President-elect has pledged to unite the country and begin delivering results for the American people during this time of unprecedented crisis, and welcomes working with Senator Toomey and any of his Republican colleagues who share that mission,” said T.J. Ducklo, a spokesperson for the Biden transition.
Nominees and trade
Toomey said presidents deserve “significant deference” when it comes to cabinet picks and executive-branch nominees that require Senate confirmation. That could be crucial if Republicans retain control of the chamber.
“The executive branch inevitably should reflect the policies of the person who wins the election,” Toomey said. “Now, that said, I won’t be a rubber stamp. ... I’m sure there will be nominees that I will not find acceptable and there are others where my support will be conditioned on commitments that they’re willing to make.”
Toomey was less definitive on how he would approach a potential Biden Supreme Court nominee. He supported the Republican blockade of an Obama high court nominee in 2016 but backed Trump’s push to fill a vacancy days before Election Day this year.
“If there’s a near-term vacancy in the Supreme Court, then I am not of the view that Joe Biden should be precluded from filling the vacancy, but it matters whom he nominates, so we’ll see what happens,” Toomey said.
Trade might hold the most potential for substantive agreement after Trump scrambled traditional political lines by imposing tariffs, sparking trade wars, and rewriting old deals.
“I’m going to disagree with probably most of President-elect Biden’s economic policy, but one area where there might be an opportunity to work together would be expanding trade,” Toomey said.
Trump argued that trade deals undercut American jobs, but Toomey believes they’re “a great opportunity for American workers,” because they help U.S. businesses reach more customers and give consumers and business here access to more products.
“It can be dislocating, and that’s a problem we have to deal with,” he said, but added, “It has throughout our history created far more opportunities than it has cost us.”
Biden, however, has downplayed expectations for new trade deals early in his term, saying he first wants to make economic investments at home.
David McIntosh, president of the conservative free-market group the Club for Growth, which Toomey once led, said that when Toomey “finds an issue where he wants to get to an end point ... he then will compromise along the way on things that are not core to that goal, but necessary to get it to the next step.”
As Congress negotiates a new coronavirus bill — and the crisis looms over Biden’s first year in office — Toomey is at odds with Democrats who are aiming for another expansive rescue package.
The country still has almost 10 million fewer jobs than at the start of the pandemic, cases are again spiking, and the economic recovery shows signs of slowing. But Toomey said that with the unemployment rate now roughly half of the nearly 15% it was in the spring, the economy has rebounded enough that new aid should be more narrowly targeted than the earlier efforts.
“We’re not in anything like the position we were in and the response shouldn’t be anything like what the response was in March,” Toomey said. “We have people who are in an acute crisis and they’re heavily concentrated as employees of a handful of industries,” such as travel, entertainment, and hospitality.
He opposed another sweeping round of relief checks like the kind sent out in March with bipartisan support. “What we should be doing should be targeted at the people who really need it, not sending out $1,200 checks to people who never lost their job and never lost a dime of income,” Toomey said.
Biden favors another round of $1,200 checks. And Democrats say that the economic recovery is fragile. Some accuse Republicans of seeking to hamstring the recovery as Biden takes office.
If he leads the banking committee, Toomey has a long list of priorities as he wraps a public career driven by conservative fiscal policies.
“There’s a lot that we can be doing which for me is all ultimately focused on creating an environment where we can have the strongest possible economic growth, job creation, and rising wages, and a lot of it doesn’t need to be partisan,” he said.
His critics say the senator’s philosophy tilts too much to Wall Street.
“Pat Toomey has repeatedly put the interests of the wealthy and the well-connected over people, over working Pennsylvanians,” said Nicolas O’Rourke, state organizing director for the liberal Pennsylvania Working Families Party.
Toomey hopes to help return mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the private sector. He plans to scrutinize the growing financial-technology sector, including digital payment systems and currencies, to ensure they aren’t being used for illegal activity.
And he hopes to create avenues for middle-income Americans to make private equity investments, perhaps through their 401(k)s or IRAs.
“The ability to come together and get things done does still exist,” Toomey said. “It’s not easy, but no one ever said it was going to be easy.”