The week after Republicans trounced her party in midterm elections, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri returned to Washington and promptly made the rounds to sound out her victorious GOP colleagues.
McCaskill grabbed lunch with her fellow Missouri lawmaker, Roy Blunt, a member of the Republican leadership team. She visited with Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who’s poised to become the chairman of the Senate’s homeland security committee. And she hugged her friend Susan Collins, a moderate Republican who’d been re-elected in Maine.
She even gave a friendly handshake to Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas and congratulated him on his hard-fought defeat of independent candidate Greg Orman.
McCaskill’s outreach efforts reflect the new reality she faces on Republican-controlled Capitol Hill.
This is uncharted territory for McCaskill: She’s never served in the minority party as a lawmaker – not in Missouri’s House of Representatives in the ’80s, and not in the U.S. Senate, which she joined in 2006.
When Democrats lost control of the Senate on Nov. 4, McCaskill lost significant clout. Come January, she’ll forfeit subcommittee chairmanships on consumer protection and financial oversight, along with other perks that come with being a member of the party in power.
But there’s a silver lining for McCaskill, even in defeat. She now is one of a handful of centrist red-state Democrats whose votes will be crucial to Republicans’ legislative agenda – or to Democratic efforts to block the GOP.
Republicans will hold at least 53 votes in the Senate come January. Sixty votes are needed to pass most legislation. That’s where McCaskill and other moderate Democrats come in, among them Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Tester of Montana, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, if she wins a December runoff. Those Democrats all signaled their willingness to cross their own party last week by publicly announcing opposition to Harry Reid of Nevada as minority leader.
“Mitch McConnell is going to need 6 to 10 votes for just about anything, so the moderates are going to have to participate and hopefully help the Senate find consensus and common ground,” McCaskill said in an interview with McClatchy.
The votes of McCaskill and other red-state Democrats will be highly sought after in a Republican Senate, Blunt said. Getting them to cooperate with Republicans “will be part of the daily work of the majority,” he said.
Reid and Democratic leaders, on the other hand, will concentrate on keeping McCaskill and her moderate colleagues in line to thwart Republicans’ plans.
First up is the Keystone XL pipeline. A bill approving that controversial project was expected to pass the Senate late Tuesday with McCaskill’s support.
In addition to the pipeline, McCaskill said she looks forward to working with Republicans on veterans’ issues, fiscal oversight, tax reform, trade and consumer protection concerns such as car safety. She also hopes to pass her bill to curb sexual assaults on college campuses with Republican support.
“The centrist credentials she has built within the Washington, D.C., community should allow her to continue to affect policy despite being in the minority,” said George Connor, department head of political science at Missouri State University.
To that end, McCaskill was among 30 senators who signed a letter to McConnell and Reid last week, proposing monthly bipartisan lunches “to broaden the relationships and deepen the rapport among members.”
That doesn’t mean McCaskill will see eye-to-eye with Republicans all of the time, or even most of the time. She’s unlikely to help them repeal the Affordable Care Act, for example, although she is open to amending the law.
McCaskill previously helped pass a measure that removed a tax reporting requirement on small businesses that she considered burdensome. She also is part of a bipartisan effort to repeal one of the law’s provisions that requires Missouri and some other states to subsidize high wages at hospitals through Medicare reimbursements.
“I’m going to work with Republicans when they do things I agree with and I’m going to fight Republicans when they’re doing things that I think are damaging,” McCaskill said.
On Sunday, McCaskill took her political tightrope-walking show to the airwaves. She told CBS “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer on Sunday that she’s “not crazy” about the president’s plan to act unilaterally on immigration, but she also said she is angry at House Republicans for not allowing a vote on a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate last year.
“I’m kind of (cranky) because I don’t have much patience for people jumping up and down about what the president is going to do when they aren’t doing anything,” she said to McClatchy.
McCaskill says that seeking compromise is nothing new for her, but election results clearly underscore that voters are fed up with partisan wrangling and gridlock.
“What the American people said in a voice that was unmistakeable, and they said it really loudly once again, is they want us to work together when we can and there’s a lot of places we can work together,” she said. “We need to quit this silly business of obstruction.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and gave the wrong first name for Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia.