N.C. Sen. Burr polishes his conservative credentials

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 5, 2010 

WASHINGTON — In U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolinians have a lawmaker who looks the part of a moderate businessman, works like a policy wonk and votes sharply conservative.

"No one can get to the right of me," Burr told reporters when he announced his re-election campaign.

And in the Senate, few have. Burr has high rankings from the American Conservative Union, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association. National Journal ranks him the 9th most conservative member of the Senate.

He has consistently voted to keep marriage between a man and a woman, to restrict abortion access, to strengthen gun rights and to increase spending on national defense. He opposes the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the military, and he voted against the expansion of a children's health insurance program.

He voted with the Republican leadership 94 percent of the time during the current Congress.

"He's essentially an across-the-board conservative on economic issues, on foreign policy issues and on social issues," said John Dinan, a political scientist at Wake Forest University in Burr's hometown of Winston-Salem.

Burr, who faces Democratic Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Libertarian Michael Beitler in November, has broken with his party on some significant votes, though. Burr aligned himself with Democrats in a stem cell debate in 2006, voting in favor of allowing research on embryonic stem cells that otherwise would have been destroyed.

Burr opposed a $120 billion war-spending bill in 2007 as one of a handful of senators voting "no." The bill laid out a series of benchmarks for continuing reconstruction aid to Iraq, and it included money for domestic programs such as hurricane relief efforts and pandemic flu protection.

In the committee rooms of Capitol Hill, Burr carries the reputation of a policy wonk. He has rarely written major legislation or taken a leadership role on controversial issues.

"From the time he's been in Congress, he's been a stealth politician. He just stays under the radar," said Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist who once advised Burr's predecessor, John Edwards. But while supporters call Burr a "workhorse," Pearce says that keep-his-head-down approach means Burr hasn't done much.

"Can you point to one thing that you could say is a Richard Burr accomplishment?" Pearce asked.

Burr declined to be interviewed for this story. But his backers say there are many issues that Burr has taken on successfully. And a review of his record shows that he's worked to shape policy on a variety of matters, albeit usually in a behind-the-scenes way.

"He's very pro-business, and he's been very supportive on all kinds of issues," said Bob Morgan, president and chief executive officer of the Charlotte Chamber. Morgan calls Burr a leader in the areas of tax policy, labor law and energy.

Burr came to the U.S. Senate in 2005 after a decade in the House, and he stuck with many of the same issues he had tackled on the other side of the Capitol.

Among these were issues focused on health care. Burr, along with Democratic U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, helped create a new agency in 2006 focused on preparedness against bioterrorist attacks and pandemic diseases. The bill would help streamline funding to private and university pharmaceutical research - much of it taking place in North Carolina.

In 2005, the so-called Burr Amendment overturned a 13-year-old policy to ban exports of weapons-grade uranium unless recipients agreed to begin converting their nuclear reactors to less-dangerous kinds of uranium. Burr said the uranium was needed for the continued production of medical isotopes to conduct research.

The Democrats took over the Senate in 2007, and Burr has occasionally offered his own legislation as an alternative.

He introduced his own health care legislation three years ago. It would have given Americans their own stipends to spend on health insurance and choose their own coverage. Much of the legislation became part of U.S. Sen. John McCain's health platform during his presidential run, and Burr re-introduced the bill in 2009.

Despite Burr's low-key demeanor, he gained national attention in 2009 when he pledged a gloves-off battle to defend Winston-Salem-based R.J. Reynolds and other N.C. tobacco companies against a major regulation overhaul. Working largely alone, he held up Senate floor matters for nearly two weeks before giving up his filibuster attempt. The bill eventually became law.

This past spring, Burr became a poster child for Senate gridlock when he blocked an Armed Services hearing that was to be attended by generals who had flown in from Hawaii and Korea. He invoked an obscure parliamentary rule on behalf of his party during a fight with Democrats over the health care law.

Burr voted against the health care overhaul, and he told supporters this year that he would make repealing the law a central plank in his re-election platform.

But in an interview this past summer on the cable-access show of Republican U.S. Rep. Walter Jones of Farmville, Burr told Jones that repeal wouldn't be possible. Instead, he said, he and other opponents should work to take away funding for the law's implementation.

The health care overhaul was a galvanizing force for conservatives across the nation in the past year. And yet there were just token rumbles of opposition to Burr in the GOP primary this past spring.

"I think that when people learn about his voting record, they're probably pleasantly surprised that he actually votes as conservatively as he does," said Dallas Woodhouse, president of the N.C. chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which has organized many of the tea party forces in the state.

Not all observers consider Burr pure in his anti-spending role.

He pledged in 2009 not to accept any more earmarks, those taxpayer-funded programs that lawmakers steer to their districts. Still, he said he would continue pushing for multiyear programs that had already begun, such as local transportation projects. For the current fiscal year, Burr's name is among those sponsors of earmarks totaling $105 million, according to Citizens Against Government Waste's annual "Pig Book."

"He does make some big mistakes every once in a while," said Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs for Club for Growth, a pro-business organization that has pushed tea party candidates. "He supported [the Troubled Asset Relief Program], he supported the highway bill, which was infested with earmarks, and he supported the farm bill."

All were sweeping pieces of legislation that saw the federal government spend billions of dollars to shore up failing banks, build transportation infrastructure and continue subsidies for farms.

"He's very bad on trade; he has a very strong protectionist streak," Roth said.

Burr has said he'll do what he can to protect North Carolina's manufacturing industries, including textiles.

He supported the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005, after initially saying he would oppose it, because he said it included provisions to protect textiles. Roth called that one of Burr's good votes.

Nearly all Burr's votes on major issues fall in line with the Senate Republican leadership.

Burr voted against the stimulus bill in 2009, saying it cost way too much money. But since then, he has twice appeared at events in the state celebrating projects funded by the stimulus bill - drawing accusations of hypocrisy from the Democratic party.

This year, he opposed extensions of unemployment benefits, telling one media outlet that he worried the federal assistance would discourage job-seekers from finding work.

Burr serves on a variety of Senate committees. On the Select Committee on Intelligence, he listens in closed-door meetings about national security matters. He voted in 2007 to give the federal government expanded powers to eavesdrop on foreign suspects without a court order.

As the top Republican on the Veterans' Affairs committee, Burr has taken an active role in advocating on behalf of military families who believe they were harmed by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune decades ago.

Last winter, he blocked two of Obama's top Navy nominees until the military agreed to spend $1.5 million for a mortality study. He introduced legislation to help veterans and their family members get health care for diseases associated with the toxic water, though the bill has not moved forward.

Burr also helped write a law that allows the federal government to train and pay family caregivers of severely injured vets.

Burr also serves on - and could become the next chairman of - the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a major panel that would shape any climate control overhaul that could come out of the Senate.

Burr co-wrote legislation this year that would offer federal subsidies for some renewable energy projects and for new nuclear energy plants, a boon for Charlotte-based Duke Energy.

Carter Wrenn, a Republican strategist who once advised Sen. Jesse Helms, said voters could expect to see Burr focused on the legislation rather than TV cameras.

"There are different kinds of senators," Wrenn said. "He's sort of a work-a-day senator."

Charles Prysby, a political scientist at UNC-Greensboro, agreed.

"I think he's just been voting along with all his Republican colleagues," Prysby said.

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