WASHINGTON • With a government shutdown looming, Roy Blunt rose in the closed-door Republican caucus to respond to the fire-breathers demanding more budget cuts and continued brinksmanship.
Blunt told his Senate colleagues that he believed that House Speaker John Boehner had gotten all the concessions he could in negotiations at the White House. The debate over spending and debt, Blunt said, is headed in the right direction.
"Roy spoke up and made very persuasive comments about how we'd turned the spending train around and how that was an achievement in itself," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., recalled of the meeting.
Blunt's support of Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Republicans was not surprising given that Blunt had just spent 14 years in the House, nearly all as a GOP leader from southwest Missouri.
His willingness as a first-term senator to speak his mind on a matter of urgency was somewhat more surprising, suggesting that he is getting comfortable in a chamber that operates much differently than the House.
Just over three months into his Senate term, Blunt has been speaking on the Senate floor and appearing more often on television, usually carrying the GOP message on issues such as government spending, health care and energy. For Blunt, the prime topics of the day remain the same issues he tackled in the House and campaigned on last year to a 13 percentage point election victory that November.
Besides knowing the issues, Blunt has the advantage of knowing the players: He worked closely with Senate leaders while in the House. He noted recently that three GOP senators were his deputy whips, among them Mark Kirk, the first-term Republican from Illinois.
The job description is expanding. Blunt was named recently to a bipartisan Senate panel on national security, a position that dovetails with his Intelligence Committee seat and increases his influence in global affairs. He chairs a Commerce subcommittee with a wide portfolio and leads an Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture that will have a lot to say when calls grow louder to cut farm subsidies to farmers who don't need them.
Nonetheless, there's always the question of how a hard charger like Blunt, who climbed to House leadership in near record time, handles himself in the hidebound Senate. Up to now, says Alexander, Blunt has committed none of the freshman transgressions that raise the eyebrows of senior members and might even stunt advancement.
"He has not waltzed into the Senate and announced that he was the No. 2 House Republican and therefore should be at the head of the line," said Alexander, who has served in the Senate for nine years and is chairman of the Republican Conference.
"He has been appropriately deferential and quiet sometimes. He understands the late Sen. Everett Dirksen's advice that occasionally a senator should be guilty of not expressing a thought," Alexander said.
In Truman's office
There may be no better metaphor for the ways of the Senate than the practice of consigning freshmen to windowless basement offices for months. Not until April 11 did Blunt and his staff move into more spacious and above-ground — quarters: the Russell Senate Office Building offices occupied by Sen. Harry S Truman on his way to the presidency.
The conservative Blunt doesn't share the same worldview as Truman, who fought GOP-proposed tax breaks for the wealthy and, six decades ago, advocated for national health insurance. But Blunt, an ex-history teacher, is happy about where he landed.
"If you like history, as I do, and you admire Harry Truman's tenacity and courage, as I do, I'm pleased to use these offices representing Missourians," Blunt said while giving a tour this week.
Of course, a new office does nothing to alter the Senate's halting pace. Nor, for Blunt, does it change his reality of being in the minority in the Senate at a time when the GOP-run House is making headlines and Democrats run the show on his side of the Capitol dome.
Blunt observed during recent interviews that he was advised to avoid frustration in being out of the hub of intense activity. That advice appeared to be testing him.
"We didn't vote yesterday. And I don't think we're going to vote today," he said. "I was never in the House when there was a day when we didn't go to the floor and vote, more often than not, six or eight times."
On the other hand, there's less pressure for Blunt in knowing that he won't need to run for re-election until 2016, rather than every two years, and that he "is responsible for one vote — mine."
Some of those votes will be watched more closely than others.
When the Senate returns from its two-week recess, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a leading budget hawk, is expected try to engineer an amendment seeking an end to billions of dollars in annual subsidies to the ethanol industry. It is a vote that worries corn farmers and makes Midwesterners who represent them nervous.
Blunt says he would favor ultimately phasing out the subsidy but not all at once. "I think that driving the truck off a cliff and thinking that that produces a result at the bottom of the cliff, that's just not right," he said.
Blunt also has taken sides on a fiercely contested matter that has divided retailers and bankers in Missouri — the drive by credit card companies to delay a government-ordered reduction in the 'swipe fees" retailers must pay on consumers' debit cards. Blunt has joined as a co-sponsor of legislation to delay the fee change, contending that more time is needed to study the effects on small banks and consumers.
These issues pale alongside the financial crisis that Congress is being forced to tackle. In addition to the debt ceiling debate, the politically explosive issues of revamping entitlement programs and possibly raising taxes hover on the horizon.
In coming weeks, senators could be presented with a proposal from the "Gang of Six" — three Senate Republicans and three Democrats, including Dick Durbin of Illinois — that aims to reduce the nation's $14 trillion-plus debt by a combination of revenue increases and jarring shifts in social programs.
Blunt is among 41 senators who signed a pledge organized by Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative advocacy group, to oppose higher income taxes for individuals or businesses. In signing the document, they also vowed to vote against lower deductions or reduced tax credits unless matched dollar for dollar by reduced tax rates.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, offered praise for Blunt in an interview and asserted that Blunt's colleagues are misguided if they believed a tax increase can pass the Congress. It's "a nonstarter," Norquist said.
Blunt's commitment to deal-making over the years could well collide with his fiscal conservatism when the Senate takes up the politically charged issue of raising the nation's debt ceiling.
Blunt has asserted that he won't support raising the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit without 'significant structural reforms," such as also agreeing to a balanced budget amendment, which Blunt has championed for years. The nation is due to run out of borrowing power in mid-May, but Treasury officials have said that raising the limit won't become critical until early July.
Thomas Mann, an analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, argued that Blunt and others should rethink their threats to withhold votes on the debt legislation.
"They're not just playing with fire, they're playing with grenades with the pins pulled," he said, citing what he believes could be disastrous effects on financial markets and the global economy by putting off the vote.
Said Blunt: "I think it (the debt ceiling) is a really good place to talk about the important issues of the future. There's no reason to change the debt ceiling unless we're going to agree to change behavior."
With a host of weighty issues looming, Blunt believes he has entered the Senate at a most significant period.
"My view is that when you look at the broad expanse of American history, that about once every generation we really do make critical decisions that set the stage for the next 25 or 30 years. I think we're in that kind of moment right now," Blunt said.
"It is two different views of the future," he added. "I think the last two years have been a significant debate about that, and I think the next two years will largely settle that debate one way or the other."