WASHINGTON — Here’s how freshman Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri spent her first summer on Capitol Hill:
She grilled a top aviation safety official about deficient airline inspections, spurned her Democratic leaders on two key votes and took a solitary — if unsuccessful — stand against closed-door hearings on a defense bill. That last one earned her some blowback.
“It was my first real experience being out in the desert by myself and not getting the warm fuzzies from all my colleagues,” McCaskill said.
It was also a reminder that despite the divisive partisanship in Congress, the Senate remains a club.
“I was warned a little bit to tread lightly,” McCaskill said. “‘Don’t take gratuitous swipes at people. If you start taking swipes at people, they can swipe back.
“There is a line you are careful not to cross.”
This is the latest in a series of stories about how this freshman lawmaker, whose closely contested race last fall helped put the Democrats in charge of Congress, learns to operate in a narrowly divided Senate.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, a senior Republican, Sen. John Warner of Virginia, wistfully recalled the “old traditions” when “freshmen were seen and not heard.”
Not this freshman class. It has too many outspoken members to go back to such genteel traditions. McCaskill might be Exhibit A.
“She really cuts right to the chase,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a freshman ally.
At hearings, McCaskill can sound like she’s back in her old job of courtroom prosecutor. She’s not so much a fire breather as a relentless interrogator who walks a witness to the edge of a cliff.
It’s a style not normally seen at congressional hearings, according to several senators. Some like her style. Some don’t.
It was on display at a recent Senate commerce aviation subcommittee hearing that she was permitted to chair. A couple of senators did a double take when they saw her holding the gavel.
“I did that deliberately because freshmen never get to,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who chairs the subcommittee. “She was interested in safety.”
The issue was how well the Federal Aviation Administration was scrutinizing overseas airline-inspection stations. McCaskill took the chief witness, FAA safety official Margaret Gilligan, though a line of interrogation that one Senate aide described as “like pulling the wings off of a fly.”
Under her questioning, Gilligan said the agency didn't inspect non-FAA certified foreign repair stations used by American carriers, but relied instead on the airline companies to assure safety. The agency also didn't know how many overseas mechanics were FAA-certified and never did surprise inspections overseas, though it conducts them in this country.
“So if you take your airplanes to foreign countries,” McCaskill said, “you are not going to have spot inspections and you can enjoy the lower costs of labor in those countries. And the American public is, in fact, underwriting the cost of that outsourcing. Correct?”
Basically true, Gilligan said.
Rockefeller called McCaskill’s performance “ferocious.” He’s asked her to be the featured speaker at the West Virginia Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner this fall.
Paul Light, a former congressional aide who teaches public service at New York University, watched McCaskill at work at another recent hearing.
“Her questions had a sharpness to them that I haven’t seen in too many hearings,” said Light, who was there as a witness. “The committee really deferred to her.”
Her style has sparked some buzz.
McCaskill’s staff said it sometimes get calls from aides to witnesses scheduled to appear before her committees to see if she’s planning to attend. Senate committee staffs preparing for hearings also have been known to urge her people to make sure she shows up.
The Senate Aging Committee, which sometimes has trouble getting members to attend hearings, even turned the Missouri lawmaker into a poster child for why senators should attend. It sent an e-mail to the staff of every senator on the committee saying that McCaskill attracted media coverage at a hearing about gifts that drug companies lavish on doctors “by simply attending the hearing and asking a few great questions. …Please encourage your boss to stop by and participate.”
McCaskill was the Missouri state auditor before her election, an expertise she’s used to begin carving out a niche. She went to Iraq last month to study the Pentagon’s use of private contracts. She's authored a bill to ensure the independence of each federal agency’s inspector general.
The Huffington Post, a Web site, dubbed her “Truman in a skirt.”
No doubt she enjoyed the nickname. McCaskill grew up in a Democratic household in a state where Harry Truman is the patron saint. Her father was a state official, her mother the first female city council member in Columbia, Mo.
McCaskill recalls ringing doorbells on Halloween with her brother and sisters in 1960 when she was 7. “Trick or treat. Vote for JFK,” they would say.
But Missouri is a politically quixotic state, where the currents can be swift and changeable. For the last decade or so, Democrats have been rudderless and Republicans, until last fall, had smooth sailing.
It’s no small wonder that McCaskill, with apologies to Truman and Kennedy, is among the three most likely Democratic senators to cross party lines on votes.
“With Claire,” said Sean Kennedy, her chief of staff, “no one can tell right off the bat where she’s going be.”
Clinging to a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate, the Democrats take her political temperature on every important vote. She was in the fold on bills to withdraw troops from Iraq, but not on immigration.
She also bolted on the energy bill, which would have raised fuel economy standards, a worry for autoworkers. They fear job cuts, and Missouri has three big auto plants. McCaskill also had made a campaign pledge to support the repeal of billions in energy industry tax breaks, but that was left out of the bill.
Supporting "good government" and maintaining her “give ‘em hell, Harry” style is central to how McCaskill sees herself as a politician. But prospering for three decades in swing-state politics also demands that you become as calculating as Texas Instruments.
“Leadership may not always like the position she takes,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. But he said Reid understands the peculiar politics of her state.
“I’m being tugged,” McCaskill said. “People know I am open to voting on the merits of a measure, regardless of who is pushing it. I’m one of those senators that people see as ‘in play,’ which is fine. I’m happy to be in the middle. It’s where I am philosophically.”