Even though Democrats now control the White House, Senate and House — but by razor-thin margins in Congress — President Joe Biden still was on the phone several times during his transition with one Republican from Utah.
“I spoke to Mitt [Romney] this morning again,” Biden mentioned in a news conference on Jan. 8. “This is a man of enormous integrity, enormous integrity, who lives his faith.”
Biden added he feels that way about the Utah senator even though “I ran against him” with Barack Obama in 2012, when Romney was the GOP presidential nominee.
Romney, in turn, praised Biden’s inauguration speech as “very strong and very much needed.
“We as a nation can come together if we are told the truth and if we have leaders who stand for enduring American principles. It is my hope that the president will call upon our better angels to bring us together, and that we as a people will rise to the occasion as well.”
Romney’s recent centrist, independent deal cutting have some seeing him as perhaps now the most influential — and maybe the only truly influential — Utahn in the newly Democratic controlled Washington, D.C.
After all, no Utahn has yet joined the new Biden administration in a high-ranking post. And for the first time since 1913-1915, when Woodrow Wilson was president, Utah has an all-Republican delegation in a Congress controlled by Democrats with a Democrat also in the White House. That likely means the Beehive State will have relatively little power for the next two years, perhaps the least influence in a century.
Except, maybe, for Romney.
A bridge to Democrats
“Romney might play the role of a bridge builder to Biden and Democrats,” who likely will need some Republican votes to accomplish anything in a closely divided Congress, said David Magleby, emeritus political science professor at Brigham Young University.
“Romney is going to be an important player,” added James Curry, a political science professor at the University of Utah.
But they and others say they don’t want to overstate that power, which they still see as limited and varying on each issue that may arise.
With the Senate split 50-50 and Vice President Kamala Harris casting any tiebreaking votes, “It’s literally as close as it gets. That makes any senator at any given moment a make-or-break scenario for the other side. I don’t think that’s exclusive to Mitt Romney,” said former GOP Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, now a Fox News contributor.
But Curry noted that Romney “really showed us something in the last two years, and especially this past winter he showed us he can be a meaningful part of moderate gangs of senators who might be able to craft a legislative proposal that gets attention.” That was demonstrated, for example, when leaders of both parties were in stalemate late last year on passing additional pandemic relief.
A small group of Republican and Democratic senators brokered a compromise, which became the blueprint for what passed. The group’s main spokesmen were Romney and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, and its other members included Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, both D-N.H.
“Biden knows that Romney is one of the folks who he can get to work with him in the Senate, unlike maybe some other hard-line Republican senators who are just not going to be interested in that,” Curry said.
“Hard-liners in Congress often sort of kneecap themselves because if you’re never willing to compromise, you’re never going to get anything done because compromise is the name of the game,” Curry added. “Romney showed over his first couple of years in office that he is willing to be part of these coalitions that make deals to pass legislation.”
But Magleby and Curry note that the standard way to work out compromise is not through independent groups but through party leaders, including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
“McConnell is the master of managing the process of the Senate. And he likes to be the quarterback,” Magleby said. “And he got undermined by Romney and other centrists on the pandemic aid compromise.
“What Biden is trying to do, I think, is to expand the pool of possible allies so that he is not dependent on having to negotiate everything through McConnell. And I think Romney may help to do that,” Magleby said.
But Curry noted that Romney doesn’t have the power to “stand up and say, ‘Well, if you do this, all my colleagues will come along with you.’ Only McConnell can do that because he’s the one who speaks for his [Republican] conference.”
‘Willing to play ball’
Still, Curry said Romney “is very important since he is one of the Republicans they [Democrats] are going to have to get nearly every time, and he’s willing to play ball.”
Magleby said newly installed Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Biden will likely need to count on losing a few votes in their party on many issues — and in the closely divided Senate will usually need some Republican support to pass anything, meaning they likely must deal with Romney and other centrists.
Under its current rules, the Senate still requires 60 votes — instead of a simple majority — to cut off filibusters and pass bills except on budget reconciliation and in the case of judicial nominations and Cabinet appointees. So a bloc of Republicans, not just one or two, are currently needed to pass most pieces of legislation.
Democrats have talked about dumping the filibuster and 60-vote rule as retaliation for Republicans pushing through the Supreme Court confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett shortly before the election. It is unclear, however, whether the new majority party intends to attempt that change.
“A lot of this comes down to whether or not the Democrats blow up the Senate and get rid of the filibuster,” Chaffetz said. “If they block the filibuster, and you just need a simple majority for every vote, then every senator is a key,” not just Romney and a group of centrists.
For example, “I think [Utah Sen.] Mike Lee has shown a propensity to reach out on issues that he believes in — and ultimately it makes for strange bedfellows.”
Chaffetz noted that Lee “did a lot of work on criminal justice reform” and such things as protecting privacy against government intrusion by teaming with Democrats, even though he is one of the most conservative members of the Senate.
Romney’s centrist dealmaking, of course, could infuriate the Republican right wing in both the Senate and Utah electorate.
“In all likelihood, he already has,” Curry said. “Romney famously is the first member of Congress from the president’s party to vote for a president’s removal from office. And that certainly didn’t win Romney any fans from the Trump wing of the Republican Party, especially among voters.”
Magleby said that after the storming of the Capitol — which Romney called “insurrection” and openly blamed on Trump and allies in Congress — “I don’t think he cares about those right-wing senators” as much as legislating.
“I think Romney doesn’t want to disregard what they think, but he has signaled now over and over again that he is willing to chart his own course and he does not want to be held hostage by them,” Magleby said.
He added that Romney may worry far less about party loyalty than others, so he and other centrists like Collins and Murkowski “could be the key for Biden to getting to 50 votes in the Senate.”
Magleby doesn’t “see anybody else” from Utah with as much power at the moment as Romney.