In spite of deep political division in Congress and across the country, Utah’s freshman Sen. Mitt Romney has been pleasantly surprised by how “collegial” his fellow senators are.
Earlier this year, Romey recalled, he was walking across the U.S. Capitol grounds when he heard someone shouting, “Hey Mitt! Mitt!”
It was Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
“She said, ‘Hey, let me tell you where the best stores are to get meat and bread,’ and so forth. Very, very friendly,” Romney said. “I know that when there are political issues that come up, we’re going to take opposite sides. But on a personal basis, people get along pretty well.”
Saturday marks Romney’s 100th day as Utah’s junior senator. Three months into his term, the 72-year-old former presidential candidate is settling into his assignments on the Senate Foreign Relations and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committees. He’s chairman of a subcommittee on the Middle East and counterterrorism and is planning a trip to countries in the region including Israel, Jordan and Iraq.
While he hasn’t unveiled a signature piece of legislation of his own yet, Romney has helped introduce a handful of bills. He’s supported legislation ranging from rural Utah’s economy to a constitutional amendment to limit the U.S. Supreme Court to nine justices, after some Democrats proposed expanding the bench.
“Whether I’m getting more done than anybody else that came in at a junior level — I doubt that — but I’m very pleased that people who’ve been here a long time are willing to have me as part of that process,” Romney said. “I think we’re making real progress.”
Since rekindling his political career last year, Romney’s relationship with President Donald Trump, who he has called a “phony” and “fraud,” has been closely watched.
Three months in, Romney has broken with the president a handful of times. The day before taking office, he penned an infamous op-ed criticizing Trump’s moral character, for which he received significant backlash from other Republicans, including GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel — his niece.
He voted for bipartisan resolutions rebuking Trump for his foreign policy and for declaring a national emergency to divert funds to the U.S.-Mexico border. On the latter vote, Romney said he opposed executive overreach, not Trump’s efforts to provide more border security.
But for Romney, the most notable time he’s set himself apart from Trump and other Republicans in the past 100 days wasn’t about policy, it was on principle — the “constant comments” leveled against late GOP Sen. John McCain.
“I believe he is, without question, one of our great American national heroes and someone that is due extraordinary respect in life as well as in death,” Romney said. “I made comments at that time and will continue to speak if things become important and significant that I think need to be addressed. ”
And that’s what voters support. Shortly after Romney’s election, anAP Votecast poll found that 64 percent of Utah voters wanted him to stand up to President Trump.
“I think those that want him to be sort of the foil to President Trump, they’ve had some reason to be satisfied,” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
However, Perry noted, Romney’s promise about when to break with the president gives him broad leeway.
“He is walking the line that he said he would when he went into the position,” he said. “Utahns are divided on President Trump, and that is why the only real position Mitt Romney can take is, ‘I call it when I need to call it.’”
As a former business executive and Massachusetts governor, Romney anticipated the limitations he would face as one member in a body of 100. Still, he says the new dynamic hasn’t been completely new to him.
“I’ve had jobs in my career where I was not the No. 1 person, the one at the top, but I had to work with others and try and make change on a more collective basis, and I’m comfortable in this role,” he said. “It’s different, but it’s really mind-expanding at the same time, educational.”
One the major points of Romney’s Senate bid was that he already had working relationships with other senators and would enter the body with a higher-than-average stature.
That has translated to his involvement in one of several working groups on health care policy, as Congressional Republicans struggle to come up with an alternative to the Affordable Care Act. Romney says he’s talking with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and a handful of other GOP Senators about a possible replacement for the law also known as Obamacare, something Trump has promised if Republicans win in 2020.
While some Democrats are pushing for Medicare for all, Romney has called that a “nonstarter.”
“I frankly don’t want to have to deal with federal bureaucrats to be able to get a CT scan or a health evaluation,” he said.
Romney wants to see a federal-state partnership on health programs “where the federal government sets the parameters, but the states have flexibility to create programs that do the better job caring for their own low-income families.”
It’s just one of many political battles Romney will face in his first term as a senator, and he says his long-term priority is to tackle is federal spending and the skyrocketing deficit.
With the 2020 presidential campaign ramping up, Romney has already caused a stir by saying while he won’t run against Trump in 2020, he wouldn’t necessarily support the president, either.
One hundred days into the job, Romney “has proven what people suspected,” the Hinckley Institute’s Jason Perry said. “Which was: he has a very strong voice and when he says something, he’s going to get a reaction.”