How a freshman senator got something big done

Sen. Claire McCaskill in her Senate office.
Sen. Claire McCaskill in her Senate office. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Campaigning for the Senate last year, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill blasted the federal government for barely raising an eyebrow as waste and corruption swallowed billions of dollars that were meant to rebuild Iraq.

Shades of Harry S. Truman. As a senator from Missouri during World War II, he rattled his own share of corporate and government cages by going after wartime profiteers.

"He was fearless,” McCaskill said during a speech last year in Independence, Mo., Truman's hometown. “He uncovered … enormous undeserved profits. I believe we need a new Truman Committee. I will fight for such a committee.”

Nine months into her first term, McCaskill is on the brink of pulling that off.

The Senate recently agreed to a plan from McCaskill and fellow freshman and Democrat Jim Webb of Virginia to clean up the Pentagon’s chaotic system of awarding private contracts for work in Iraq. It was added to a big defense-spending bill.

This is another in an occasional series about the political education of a freshman senator.

McCaskill used to be Missouri's state auditor. Government audits are her bedtime reading. She was quick to realize that Pentagon contracts were ripe targets.

Webb is a combat veteran of Vietnam and a former secretary of the Navy. He has an insider’s knowledge of how things are supposed to work — but often don’t.

Their bill would give oversight of private defense contracts to an independent, bipartisan commission. To the eight Senate Democratic freshmen — and one independent who votes with them — the McCaskill-Webb measure symbolizes a pledge to restore government integrity, which they all campaigned on last year.

“We see stories of the corruption of these defense contractors,” said freshman Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “People are outraged by it.”

When Blackwater security guards working for the State Department gunned down Iraqi civilians last month, killing 17, the issue hit the full Senate’s radar.

McCaskill and Webb wanted their measure to be tacked onto the big defense bill. Get in line, they were told. Some 500 or so amendments were floating in the Senate ether, many sponsored by more senior lawmakers.

"We are going to have to muscle our way in,” said an e-mail between aides.

On Monday, Sept. 24, the freshmen Democrats sent a letter asking for a vote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan. Levin chairs the Armed Services Committee and was in charge of the defense bill.

The next day, McCaskill's legislative director, Chani Wiggins, told her to start buttonholing colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, to press for their support.

McCaskill balked. The amendment seemed like a no-brainer. “Why do I need to do all that?” she asked. “Why won’t everyone vote for the bill?”

Republican suspicion of any Democratic initiative, she was told.

“I could tell that unless I worked it, it wasn’t going to happen,” McCaskill recalled.

So after a hearing, she plopped herself down between Republican Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio and Norm Coleman of Minnesota and made her pitch. Necessary Senate spadework, much like gardening.

On Wednesday, Sept. 26, McCaskill was on the Senate floor. Also present were Levin, an ally, and Sen. John Warner of Virginia, a senior Republican, former chairman of the Armed Services Committee and secretary of the Navy.

Warner was skeptical of her proposed independent commission.

“We are outsourcing the work of Congress,” he objected.

Between them, Warner and Levin had 60 years of Senate experience, while McCaskill had less than one.

But after listening to her, Warner tossed a bouquet.

“We ‘old bulls’ … are very much impressed with our new member and her vigor and her foresight and her determination to get things done,” the courtly Virginian said. “You’ve stirred us up.”

To Senate aides, that was a turning point. Warner hadn’t said yes, but he hadn’t said no, either.

McCaskill rose and returned the compliment.

“There’s a few people around here that can get us past some of the partisanship, and I have noticed in my short time here that you’re one of the chosen ones,” she told Warner. “And I’m very hopeful that I can convince you.”

One central issue: Her amendment would give more authority to Stuart Bowen Jr., the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, to look at Afghanistan.

Warner later approached her on the Senate floor. He had called Bowen, who was waiting in the reception room just off the chamber.

“Why don’t we go talk to him?” he suggested.

That was unexpected.

This could be bad, McCaskill thought. She'd met with Bowen the day before, and he had backed her amendment. But what if, face to face with the powerful Warner, he yielded to Republican reservations?

They met at a long table in an ornate room under portraits of Senate legends Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Warner questioned Bowen about waste and fraud in Iraq. They negotiated changes to the bill about subpoena power and ensuring Bowen’s independence.

Eventually they struck a deal.

The amendment sailed through the next day by unanimous consent.

But not before McCaskill took the floor and quoted Truman from 60 years earlier, when his investigative commission started.

“We intend to see that no man or corporate group of men shall profit inordinately on the blood of the boys in the foxhole,” she quoted.

Now the freshmen wait to see whether their work makes it into the final Senate-House compromise on the defense bill. Warner’s endorsement “helped seal the deal” in the Senate, said Webb spokeswoman Jessica Smith.

But McCaskill said it was also “hard for the Democratic caucus to say ‘no’ to the nine (freshmen) who made them all chairmen. It was kind of a perfect storm.”

As she and Webb left the Senate chamber after the vote, colleagues gave them handshakes and high-fives.

“You know,” Levin said with a smile, “you’re like a human buzz saw.”

McCaskill smiled back. “I’ll take that as a compliment, Carl.”

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