Toomey shows independent streak?

Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey says he's a pragmatic conservative. (Emma Lee/WHYY

Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey says he's a pragmatic conservative. (Emma Lee/WHYY

The race for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat remains close. Democrat Katie McGinty is painting incumbent Republican Pat Toomey as a part of the Washington gridlock, but Toomey claims to be a pragmatic conservative.

The truth seems to be somewhere in between.

Toomey has served just one term in the Senate, but he’s already known nationwide for the “Toomey-Manchin gun bill,” which would have instituted nearly universal background checks for gun purchases. West Virginia Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who says the bill was his idea, said he needed just one Republican to step up to the plate.

“After we shopped everywhere and went through all of them, Pat was the one who showed an interest,” Manchin said. “He got very much involved, and we sat down and worked through it.”

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The legislation failed after the NRA pulled its initial support, and it became a third rail for Republicans. Manchin said Toomey put his neck out.

“It was common sense, but it was bold,” Manchin said. “When no other Republican would step forward and Pat did — that was pretty bold.”

Besides that headline-grabbing bill, how else has Toomey worked across the aisle?

Pennsylvania Democrats said a few areas come to mind. U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle of Philadelphia said his office and Toomey’s have coordinated help for constituents.

“I can think of transportation, supporting projects, or even co-sponsoring things that have to do with a member’s district,” Boyle said. “So there is that real sort of collegial attitude among the Pennsylvania members, and I think it’s something our state is known for.”

Not best working relationship with Casey, but good

Today’s Congress is hyperpartisan, more so than any time in recent memory, which has made working across the aisle harder. Pennsylvania’s senior senator, Democrat Bob Casey, said he and Toomey could have a better working relationship … like in the good old days of representing Pennsylvania in Washington.

“I wouldn’t say it’s as robust as it was back in the [times of] Jack Murtha, Joe McDade, Bud Shuster, Bob Borski, I can go on and on — and I think that’s emblematic of the whole Congress,” Casey said.

Casey supports McGinty’s quest  to replace Toomey, in part, because political party matters more in Washington these days. Despite that, he said he’s had a good working relationship with Toomey on home state priorities.

“We try to work together. It’s difficult when you have such an ideological divide, but I think, in a lot of priorities, we focus on the state as a delegation and try to work together,” Casey said.

Casey pointed to filling federal court vacancies as a productive area, though even there he said his job would be easier with Democrats in charge.

“We’ve worked together on a lot of things — we have to work together, and we both try to work very hard on judges,” Casey said. “That kind of broke down recently when the leadership of the Judiciary Committee and the Republican leadership said they weren’t going to confirm judges, so our process was badly undermined by that.

“But I think we both make the effort to work together where we can,” he said. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

A conservative ‘work horse’ 

U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Delaware County, described Toomey this way: “I think he’s a conservative and has been, but he’s demonstrated his ability to look for the best interest of the state and work together on trying to find solutions,” Meehan said.

According to the Washington Post votes database, Toomey has sided with his party 92 percent of the time, which is typical in an era defined by strong political parties. But most of those votes are on the big political, headline-grabbing bills, not on the stuff that happens behinds the scenes in Washington.

“In Washington, there are show horses and work horses, but Toomey is a work horse,” Meehan said.

Some polls are showing the Senate may be split 50-50 at the start of the next Congress, which makes the Pennsylvania contest of national importance.

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