Politics

July 29, 2013

Ex-governors make headway in U.S. Senate

Maine Sen. Angus King and 10 other former governors bring 'an extra dose of pragmatism.'

By KEVIN MILLER Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON - The five senators had gathered to announce a bipartisan breakthrough that would lower borrowing costs for millions of college students and fundamentally alter how the federal government sets interest rates on student loans.

click image to enlarge

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, a former governor, listens to testimony during hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington in January. Several former governors who are now senators are known for their work across the aisle even if their efforts are not always successful.

2013 fil photo/The Associated Press

But Maine Sen. Angus King couldn't forgo the opportunity to make another point.

"I don't think it's any coincidence that of the five people standing before you today, three of them are former governors," King, a two-term governor from Maine, told reporters that morning in late June. "Because we came here to try to do things and to see problems solved."

The key word in that sentence may be "try."

King and other former governors now in the Senate often talk about how their previous experiences as chief executives gave them a different perspective on governing. Yet the Senate also has a long history of grinding former governors down as the realities of the chamber's oftentimes glacial pace runs counter to their experiences leading much smaller bureaucracies.

"They are used to saying, 'Do this' and it gets done. And nothing gets done in the Senate," said Wendy Schiller, an associate professor of political science at Brown University who studies the Senate.

The bipartisan compromise on student loans that passed the Senate last week was, in the end, the result of negotiations involving Democratic leadership and the White House. But the keel of the legislation was laid down by five senators: King, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

King and Manchin began conversations on student loans after competing Democratic and Republican bills failed. They and Alexander are among 11 former governors serving in the Senate.

Although a relatively young group in terms of years in the Senate, its members run the political spectrum with six Democrats, four Republicans and King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. All but one of the 11 -- New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen -- are men, a statistic that reflects the disproportionately low number of women in both the Senate and governor's mansions nationwide.

Several of those now-senators -- while careful not to portray themselves as better than their non-gubernatorial peers -- said they believe former governors can often bring a somewhat different perspective to the table.

"I think everyone brings their own background and, in that sense, something special. But I think (former governors) have a common experience that helps us work together," said Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican who served 10 years as governor before winning election to the Senate in 2010.

Sen. Tom Carper described it as "an extra dose of pragmatism" and a realization that working with different interests -- whether state legislators, other governors or members of Congress -- requires governing "from the middle."

Carper, a Democrat who served two terms as Delaware's governor, gave the example of trying to craft a policy platform at the National Governors Association.

"In order for us to agree on policy issues that we recommend to the president and to Congress, we need unanimity -- all 50 of us had to agree," said Carper, who also was involved in the student loan negotiations. "What we learned to do, at that time, was how to generate consensus, how to find the middle."

Both senators from Virginia -- Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine -- are former Democratic governors who had to work with at least one and sometimes two Republican-controlled chambers of the Virginia General Assembly. The men have said the experience shaped their attitudes -- and expectations -- coming into the Senate.

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