Sen. Pat Roberts likes to quote a piece of advice from his mentor, the late U.S. Rep. Keith Sebelius of Kansas: “Smother your enemies with the milk of human kindness and pray it doesn’t curdle.”
It’s a strategy the octogenarian Republican lawmaker used to help pass a farm bill this month with unanimous Democratic support in the Senate — a notable feat in a Congress often gridlocked by partisan squabbles.
To Roberts, a Kansas Republican who first arrived on Capitol Hill as a congressional aide in 1967, this is how the legislative process is supposed to work: Collaborative, collegial, competent.
To some critics within his own party, however, Roberts’ alliance with Democrats to push what those critics considered a deeply flawed and costly farm bill represents a betrayal of conservative values.
“It’s a slap in the face to Ronald Reagan,” said Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “It’s a victory for a massive welfare state without work requirements and an out-of-control budget.”
The 82-year-old Roberts is up for re-election in 2020. Should he decide to run for another six-year Senate term, his future — and possibly his undefeated record as a candidate — hinges on whether his old-school approach to making policy through compromise has become a liability in the age of Donald Trump’s winner-take-all politics.
“I hope we’re not an endangered species,” Roberts said of his breed of pragmatic lawmaker.
The difficulty for Roberts is that incentives in today’s political system are far less geared toward working things out in a bipartisan way than they once were, said Dan Glickman, a Democrat and former Clinton administration secretary of agriculture who represented a Kansas district in Congress from 1977 to 1995.
Glickman believes a majority of voters still want a Congress that works well. But a small and very vocal minority want purity of ideological position. And that minority plays an outsize role in primaries.
Roberts must decide where he fits in — or if he still does fit at all.
“We’re in a polarized world right now. You’re either in one end zone or the other end zone,” Glickman said. “Being at the 50 yard line or even the 40 yard line is not as appreciated as it used to be. That’s just the reality.”
Prominent Kansas Republicans already are eying his seat, including Kansas’ outgoing GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer and Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, in anticipation that Roberts might step aside.
No one has yet announced a primary challenge against Roberts, but conservative activists see him as vulnerable from the right. The senator narrowly survived a primary against Tea Party candidate Milton Wolf in 2014.
“The national debt has soared over Pat Roberts’ time in both the House and the Senate and there are numerous examples of him contributing to that problem,” said Andrew Roth, vice president of government affairs for Club for Growth, a group that advocates smaller government.
Conservatives such as Roth want to rein in taxpayer-funded subsidies for farmers and impose new work requirements on older people and parents enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps.
The final farm bill omitted the proposed work requirements and expanded eligibility for the subsidies program.
Roth said Roberts needs to explain to the voters why he thinks it’s a victory that he has supported a bill that will cost almost a trillion dollars.
“It creates and empowers dependence on the government,” Roth said. “He’ll need to explain to conservative voters why he thinks that’s a good idea.”
But Roberts’ coalition building drew strong praise from agricultural interests. “All I can say is Pat Roberts got a five year farm bill done when not much else is getting done on a bipartisan basis,” said Randy Russell, a veteran lobbyist who represents several agriculture groups.
Roberts isn’t shying from a fight. He likes to remind reporters and skeptics that he was a Marine, and “Marines take the hill.”
He has no interest in dying on that hill, not for the sake of ideological purity. Roberts wants to survive. He wanted his farm bill to survive.
“Farmers need certainty and predictability,” Roberts said. “I had one old boy out west who said, ‘Pat, I don’t care what you do to me as long as you let me know.’”
Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, knew he couldn’t rely on Republican votes alone to pass the farm bill. He knew Democrats would vote as a bloc behind Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, the top Democrat on the committee.
The two had built a friendship across the aisle after serving together on the committee for several years. They forged an agreement last year, before the legislation was even drafted, that they’d partner on a bill.
“It goes to the question of, ‘Do you want to govern?’” Stabenow said “Do you want to solve problems and get things done? Clearly, Sen. Roberts was committed.”
When the pair kicked off their work on the farm bill last year with a hearing in Manhattan, Kansas, Stabenow wore purple as a tribute to Roberts’ alma mater Kansas State University and a symbol of their unity. She gave him a green Michigan State tie.
Their personal relationship and the synergy between their staffs was reminiscent of a bygone era in Congress, when chairs and the top minority members worked closely as teams.
“We trusted one another,” Roberts said.
Their partnership enabled the initial Senate bill to pass with 86 votes.
“I was probably the nicest guy in the Senate for the last two years. I didn’t want to offend anybody,” Roberts said. “I said good morning to (former Democratic presidential candidate) Bernie Sanders every morning.”
But the pact between Roberts and Stabenow caused tension with Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Agriculture Committee.
“The chairman of the House didn’t want to consider the Democratic perspective and was frustrated that Sen. Roberts and I were working together,” Stabenow said.
Strengthening Roberts’ hand was his long-standing friendship with Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the top Democrat in the House Agriculture Committee.
Roberts has even sung on stage with Peterson’s country band, The Second Amendments.
With Roberts and Stabenow teaming up with Peterson, Conaway was the odd man out. The setup put the House GOP in a weakened position as the four leaders worked to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the farm bill.
Conaway described the negotiations as three against one.
“Pat was convinced that he either got all of the Democratic votes or he got none of them,” Conaway said. “And from that weak negotiating position, he and Debbie were joined at the hip ... I had anticipated it would be more Republican on Democrat, but it wasn’t.”
Despite Roberts’ effort to minimize conflict, a dispute over commodities grew heated and personal early on in the talks.
Conaway favored changes to the commodities program that would have favored cotton, a major crop in Texas, at the expense of major crops in the Midwest, Stabenow recalled.
As lead negotiator, Roberts intervened to preserve decorum, siding with the Democrats.
“Let’s just say that I was a referee and that on several occasions I tossed the yellow flag,” Roberts said.
Roberts was vague about the nature of the dispute, but pointed to its resolution as a pivotal moment in the negotiations.
For Roth, the Club for Growth lobbyist, Roberts’ openly siding with the Democrats during negotiations between the House and Senate wasn’t so much a betrayal of his own party as a confirmation that he wasn’t committed to conservative ideological positions.
“I don’t think that conservatives had some huge expectation that Roberts was with them in the first place, so that when he disappointed them, they weren’t really disappointed,” he said.
House Republicans found Roberts’ position hypocritical because he had voted against the 2014 farm bill and pointed to the failure to tighten eligibility standards for food stamps as one of his reasons.
“2014 was just a different time,” Roberts said. “Two different bills. Two different times.”
While Roberts refereed negotiations, Trump spent weeks lashing out at Stabenow on Twitter and demanding that Congress enact the stricter work requirements in the House proposal.
Roberts largely ignored the president’s tweets and turned to another Midwesterner, Vice President Mike Pence, as his main contact in the White House.
The former Indiana governor became Roberts’ conduit to persuade the president of necessity of passing the more moderate bill to take care of the rural voters who put Trump in office at a time when they are struggling partly because of the trade tariffs the president enacted.
“We were trying to indicate through the vice president and through others … ‘We’ve got to get it through the Senate,’” Roberts said. “It may not be the bill that you would prefer and put a lot of so-called reform, which really wasn’t well-thought out.”
In the end, Trump embraced the bill as a rare bipartisan success.
At a White House signing ceremony on December 20, Roberts posed for selfies with Peterson and Stabenow as they awaited the arrival of the president and Conaway.
The president thanked the Democrats for their hard work on the bill, before quickly adding, “I’ll probably have to deny that I ever said that someday.”
Roberts is spending his holiday break contemplating one more campaign.
His successful negotiation of the 2018 farm bill proves, the senator says, that he’s “still at the top of my game” after half a century in Washington.
“If you’re in good health and you feel good and feel you can continue to make a difference, you’ll probably run,” he said. “There are other considerations. Family. What you want do for the rest of your life. But I’ve been very privileged in public service and in politics I’m 24 and 0.”