Six months in, Sen. Kaine is still finding his footing

By:  Bill Bartel

United States Sen. Tim Kaine began his congressional career by getting lost.

One day after Vice President Joe Biden swore him in Jan. 3, Kaine became disoriented while trying to find his temporary office in the basement of the 750,000-square-foot Dirksen Senate Office Building.

"I came in a different door and the halls weren't where I thought they were," he recalled with a smile.

It took a Wyoming Republican, Sen. John Barrasso, to steer the wandering freshman from the Old Dominion.

Day two: same story, different helper. Confused again, he was shown the way by Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.

It was Kaine's not-so-noble introduction to life on Capitol Hill, where he has since gained a little stronger footing.

One of 14 new senators, he is ranked 95th on the seniority list, meaning he's not in charge of much. But that doesn't matter, Kaine said during an interview in his new office in the Russell Senate Office Building.

"If you come in thinking as an executive, you'll be unhappy," the 55-year-old moderate Democrat, former governor and Richmond mayor said. "Approach it as something where I can have an expertise in a couple of things, then it can be kind of exciting."

Seven months into his six-year term, whatever legacy Kaine may build in the Senate is very much a work in progress.

Awarded key committee assignments - particularly for a Virginian - on the Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Budget committees, Kaine has focused on defense and spending issues while seeking more influence on foreign policy issues.

The most daunting task for him and many in Congress, he believes, is unlocking the partisan gridlock that threatens once again to shut down the government this fall.

Kaine said he arrived to find many veteran senators "unhappy" and "frustrated" with political stalemates that made the previous congressional session the least productive since the late 1940s.

To his surprise, he found that the standoff isn't driven solely by sharp philosophical differences on fundamental issues like federal spending, taxes, and the role and size of the government.

"More of the gridlock than I would have thought is not ideological,. It's more personal. We don't talk enough."

"People are cordial and saying 'Hi' when you come into a committee hearing," Kaine said. "But in terms of sitting down and really listening to people and understanding what they're interested in, what motivates them, how they see some problem... there's just not enough attention paid."

The senator said he's looking for common ground anywhere he can.

Consider, for example, the nameplates worn by Senate pages.

The high school students hired for the session wear badges identifying them as Republican or Democratic, depending on the office that sponsors them - even though they serve the entire Senate.

Kaine and Sen. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, are lobbying to get rid of the party designations.

"That's a really small thing," Kaine said, but the partisan tags send a wrong message.

Not that he and Fischer are close politically. A conservative rancher from the Sandhills, Fischer won her seat last fall promising to shrink the federal government and to abolish the Federal Highway Administration, the new health care law and the Dodd-Frank law on financial regulation.

The two senators' office suites are next to each other in the Russell building.

"He and I sort of bonded at the orientation for new members," Fischer said, noting they were part of a delegation that visited Afghanistan in early July. "It helps when you travel with someone. You have longer opportunities to be able to talk."

It was during a daily workout at the Senate gym in June that Kaine began talking with Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, about their shared concern over Egypt's arrest and conviction of 43 nongovernmental organization workers, including some Americans. The pair decided to send a joint letter of protest.

"It's recognizing a common interest," Kaine said. "You have to just spend some time to find them."

Kaine said he has no delusions about the depth of differences on fiscal issues or the disagreements between other conservatives and liberals.

"I think compromise is like a muscle. You exercise it and it gets stronger," he said. "It's easier to do it the next time because you listen to each other and maybe build up a little bit of trust."

The current overriding concern is whether feuding legislators can avert a looming fiscal crisis while avoiding deep budget cuts that are particularly upsetting to Virginia's military-dependent economy.

With Congress in recess until Sept. 9 and the new fiscal year set to begin Oct. 1, time is short to agree to a spending plan or to find a way to mitigate the second year of automatic budget cuts - known as sequestration - on Pentagon and domestic programs.

Kaine believes there's room to strike a deal, and efforts to do so will likely begin in the Senate.

"People are trying to find a way out of it for the good of the nation," he said. "There is a little bit of Senate pride. We were supposed to be different."

But not all his work has been about the budget.

Kaine's greatest high as a senator came June 27, when the Senate passed a sweeping immigration overhaul bill supported by all the Democrats and a third of the Republican senators. The measure, which would beef up border security and allow millions of people illegally living in the U.S. to take steps toward citizenship, is now in the House.

His worst day had come a few months earlier, when the Senate failed to advance a bill to expand background checks for gun sales. The April 17 vote came one day after Kaine delivered an emotional floor speech on the sixth anniversary of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. Kaine slowly read the names of the 32 students and educators killed by a gunman, and described Liviu Librescu, a 76-year-old professor who was fatally shot protecting his escaping students.

Rather than risk their lives, he said, senators needed only to find a "small measure of courage" to buck the gun lobby.

Sen. Mark Warner, his senior Virginia colleague, said the failed vote tested Kaine's "relentless optimism" that choice words and reasonable arguments can overcome powerful political forces in the Capitol.

"Tim is really, really good at making an impassioned plea," Warner said. "I think that he felt that the power of the message that he gave was so strong and so overwhelmingly compelling."

Warner, who was governor when Kaine was lieutenant governor, said Kaine's decency and optimism are "a bit contagious."

Since January, Kaine has introduced a handful of bills. His first was the Troop Talent Act, which would help veterans obtain civilian certifications or licenses for skills they learned in the military.

He and Warner introduced a measure to lift the embargo on drilling for gas and oil off Virginia's coast, as long as Virginia gets a share of the revenue. Kaine is opposed, however, to the Keystone XL pipeline project to transport Canadian-harvested tar sands oil through the United States' midsection. Offshore drilling can be part of a broad energy strategy that includes wind and solar, Kaine said, but tar sands mining is an unacceptable "dirtier energy source."

He supported repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which specifies that marriage be limited to one man and one woman. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the law in June, Kaine joined more than 40 other senators in backing legislation to ensure that gay couples legally married in one state have their union honored for federal purposes, even if they moved to a state, such as Virginia, that doesn't recognize same-sex marriages.

In keeping with tradition among Virginia's federal lawmakers, Kaine has been a strong proponent of defense programs, using his position on the Armed Services panel to speak out repeatedly about the perils of sequestration and his objection to the Pentagon's request to begin a new round of domestic base closings. Kaine suggests cutting overseas installations.

The Virginian has earned the respect of Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who likes the way Kaine interrogates witnesses.

"He's extraordinarily thoughtful and he listens. He kind of incorporates the knowledge that he's amassed plus what he listens to into his questions in a very impressive way," Levin said. "I don't want to compare him to other senators, but he's got an extremely thoughtful style."

Kaine enjoys a closeness to President Barack Obama that is rare for a freshman legislator. Obama campaigned in Virginia for Kaine during his successful 2005 gubernatorial election. In early 2007, Kaine was the first governor outside Obama's home state of Illinois to endorse his 2008 presidential bid.

After Obama's 2009 inauguration and again this year, Kaine and his wife, Anne Holton, were among the few insiders who wrapped up the celebration at a late-night gathering in the White House private residence.

Kaine acknowledges that while he follows protocol in contacting White House staff on Senate matters, he could contact Obama directly if it were necessary. "But it's something that, you know, I would only do in a very extreme circumstance."

The two talk by phone occasionally - usually at the president's request.

"It would be wrong to describe it as chummy, or that we hang out," Kaine said. "But we do have a deep respect for each other."

Kaine continues to live in his longtime home in Richmond where he and his wife raised three children. He has rented a Washington apartment, which he refers to as "the smallest studio in D.C.," a short walk from Capitol Hill. He stays there weekdays when the Senate is in session but otherwise operates out of his regional office in downtown Richmond.

His days are usually tightly scheduled with meetings, hearings, Senate sessions and other official business, but Kaine travels the state as if he were still running for office. He's spent close to 60 days on the road in Virginia since January. Many trips were for serious discussions of military budget cuts and education needs. Others included stops at parades and festivals, where Kaine occasionally pulls out his harmonica to play bluegrass or gospel tunes alongside local musicians.

He held his first online Town Hall meeting in July, using Twitter and Facebook - and a tech-savvy aide - to answer constituents' questions.

Online banter and barnstorming won't ease up in the years to come, Kaine promised.

"I'm listening so I can do my job better," he said. "Two-thirds of it is to explain Virginia to Washington, and one-third to explain Washington to Virginia."

During a recent hourlong lunch, a dozen college-age interns peppered the senator with questions. The men and women who spent the summer working in his office wanted to know: What's the best way to start a career in government? How do you prepare to run for office?

Kaine leaned in to listen and nodded with encouragement as they talked about their goals. He didn't mince words with his advice.

You need to bring something to the game other than desire, an education and a love of politics, he said. He reminded them that his predecessor, former Sen. Jim Webb, had a storied military career and that many successful state legislators had been police officers, bankers, teachers and stay-at-home moms.

"I didn't go into politics because I needed a job," said Kaine, who spent time as a Catholic missionary in Honduras and worked as a civil rights lawyer. "If I lose an election tomorrow, I can make a living. I don't need to cut corners."

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