Blumenthal hopes to build on low-key freshman year in Senate
Published 2:37 pm, Monday, February 20, 2012
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal says one of his goals in the Senate this year is to build personal relationships with Republican lawmakers in an effort to reduce bitter partisanship in Congress. To that end, there's nothing like a week together in an airplane to help cement those bonds.
Blumenthal left Friday for a week-long trip to the Middle East with Republican U.S. Sens. John McCain of Arizona, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
"I will have a very different relationship with these men when I return'' after a week together, Blumenthal said, hopefully.
Assessing his first year in the Senate, Blumenthal said he has focused on constituent services rather than on lofty legislative goals.
"My focus is on individual constituent work, helping people who have problems, and using that experience to identify broader problems that can be solved through legislative initiatives," Blumenthal said.
As an example of constituent services merging with Senate action, Blumenthal cited legislation that would encourage pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs to combat the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
He and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., have co-sponsored the Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now (GAIN) Act that would create incentives for the industry to develop those drugs by providing for swifter Food and Drug Administration approval and longer patent protection.
"I became aware of the problem from constituents and, frankly, the media,'' Blumenthal said.
The Blumenthal-Corker bill is pending before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Spokeswoman Justine Sessions said the panel is expected to address the issue as part of a larger package of FDA legislation.
It's unlikely that Blumenthal's name will appear on landmark legislation this year that would rank with the Taft Hartley Act (labor relations), Dodd Frank, (financial reform), Gramm Rudman (budget restraints), McCain Feingold (campaign finance) or the Roth IRA.
`USING HIS PLATFORM'
Blumenthal lamented that the partisan "gridlock bordering on dysfunction has been at times disheartening, discouraging disappointing. It's hard to get anything done.''
And the Senate's seniority tradition doesn't smile on a freshman who now ranks No. 97 among 100 lawmakers.
But Blumenthal says he's proud that "a senator can make a difference without legislating, by using his platform to get things done.''
He cites using his bully pulpit last year to prod the Pentagon to speed up delivery of lower body armor to military personnel in Afghanistan. After Blumenthal and three other senators visited U.S. troops, Blumenthal wrote Ashton Carter, then the Defense Department undersecretary for acquisition, to request faster delivery of lower-body armor kits to protect military personnel against improvised explosive devices -- mostly roadside bombs.
Carter, recently promoted to deputy secretary, credited Blumenthal for calling the Pentagon's attention to the potential for better troop protection.
"We met in September after he had just come back from Afghanistan," Carter recalled in an interview last week.
"The senator had noticed how valuable ballistic underwear was to British troops, who had adopted it first. We were just beginning to. He emphasized the need to accelerate delivery -- he energized the entire department. We diversified our vendors to accelerate our acquisition."
The Pentagon took note of Blumenthal's membership on the Senate Armed Service Committee and, by December, had shipped more than 200,000 pelvic protection kits to U.S. forces there.
As a member of the Armed Service Committee, Blumenthal is positioned to look out for the state's Navy installations and defense-related industries. (Connecticut always ranks among the top recipients of defense spending, with General Dynamics, United Technologies and General Electric among leading contractors.)
Last week, he pressed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at a committee hearing to restore Pentagon funding for construction of two Virginia-class submarines in 2014, a joint project by Electric Boat of Groton and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.
As part of its efforts to shrink defense spending, the Obama administration has proposed the start of joint construction of two new subs in 2013 but only one in 2014.
Panetta replied that he was open to alternative spending cuts.
FINDING A ROUTINE
Blumenthal, who turned 66 last week, has settled into a routine, insofar as a senator's schedule can find a groove. He commutes on weekends back to his Greenwich home and travels around the state to meet constituents or participate in public events. On Mondays, he usually returns to Washington, where he lives in a one-bedroom furnished apartment near the Capitol.
"I get up a little after 5, run, do some reading, and leave the house at quarter of 8," he said.
"I jog down the Mall, around four to five miles. The Mall is great. At home I jog on the roads, but they're hilly and I have to look after cars.''
He described the historic Mall, with its long-distance views of the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, as "a virtual postcard.''
"I'm running on it with the sun coming up,'' he said. "What could be more inspiring? I like to run down to the Lincoln Memorial, where I'll run up the steps and read some of what's there and come back down."
He skimps on breakfast but snacks on Cheerios in his office during the day.
Blumenthal's private Senate office is a two-story airy enclave in the modern Hart Senate Office Building (built in 1982 -- youthful by Washington standards) directly across from the U.S. Supreme Court.
His office wall is decorated with a framed collection of photos of his son Matthew's Pineville-based Marine Corps Reserve unit when it was deployed in Afghanistan. The unit, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, recently returned home, and 1st Lt. Matthew Blumenthal, USMCR, has ended his active duty and is considering law school, the senator said.
"His return is a huge relief," Blumenthal said. "Every day you wake up you wonder what he's doing, and where he is, and every night before you go to bed you wonder where he is and what he's doing."