After retiring under fire, Dodd leaving Senate on a high note

WASHINGTON–Just about a year ago, Sen. Christopher Dodd was at a political and personal nadir. His poll numbers had tanked, the Senate ethics committee was examining allegations that he’d gotten a special mortgage deal, and two of the people he was closest to, his sister Martha and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., were dying of cancer.

On July 10, as mourners streamed into the pews for his sister’s funeral, Dodd seemed completely drained. “I looked over at him and thought, ‘How is this guy going to get through this?'” recalls former Rep. Toby Moffett, another Connecticut Democrat and a longtime friend. “His sister, Teddy, the (mortgage) thing–2009 was brutal, brutal for him.”

Today, Dodd is at a pinnacle as Congress prepares to vote on a sweeping financial reform bill that, for the last year, he has helped craft and steer through Congress. A final vote could come later this week, and the outcome is not guaranteed. With the death of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., on Monday, Dodd remains one or even two votes short of the 60 he needs to stave off a Republican filibuster, and the Connecticut Democrat spent yesterday scrambling to put his legislative triumph back on track.

But if it does pass, this will be Dodd’s second major legislative victory in just three months, following passage of a broad health care overhaul he championed.

“It’s quite a swan song,” notes Moffett.

Indeed, President Barack Obama called Dodd on Friday morning, just two hours after the financial reform negotiations had ended in a sweeping deal that, if enacted, will create a new consumer protection agency, rein in the $600 trillion derivatives market, and usher in other new regulations on Wall Street firms. “You’ve probably had the most remarkable session of any member in memory,” Obama told Dodd, the senator recounted in an interview in his office Monday afternoon.

What happened between last summer and this one? For starters, Dodd announced in January that he would not seek re-election, making him a lame duck after 35 years in Congress. At the same time, happenstance, politically savvy, and hard work put Dodd in the middle of the two most contentious and significant political battles on Capitol Hill.

Dodd had made the decision to stay on as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, despite opportunities to take over other, higher-profile panels. That put him at the center of the economic crisis and the ensuing debate over Wall Street reform.

And as the health care reform battle got underway, an ailing Sen. Kennedy asked Dodd to serve as his chief deputy on the Senate panel with a lead role in shaping the measure.

With responsibility for those two major bills as his political career wound down, Dodd had the opportunity to dramatically change the ending of his long career in Washington, and he seized it.

“The moment was now, and he plunged in to get the work done,” said former state Sen. Sanford Cloud, who co-chaired Dodd’s presidential campaign and remains a close friend.

Steve Kinney, another longtime Dodd friend who started out as his driver in the early 1980s, said: “Anyone who thought he was going off into the sunset, they don’t know this guy … He’s just not taking his foot off the gas.”

When asked how he had managed such a political turnaround, Dodd said simply: “Well, I like to win.”

Kinney and others noted that Dodd helped broker a final deal on the financial reform bill last week by deploying the same tactic that he’d used three decades ago, in a very different fight. Then, in 1980, it was a seven-month strike by workers at Electric Boat, and the opposing lawyers would not speak to each other.

Dodd corralled the warring parties in a room in a hotel in Norwich and said no one could leave until they had reached an agreement. “Dodd stayed up all night and went back and forth and back and forth until they had a deal,” recalls Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who was then managing Dodd’s first Senate race.

Last week, in the midst of delicate talks between House and Senate negotiators over competing versions of the financial reform bill, Dodd pulled out the same trick in the face of a much more complex task. When the conference committee reached an impasse on Thursday afternoon and the prospects of meeting their self-imposed deadline for a deal seemed to be slipping, Dodd announced a brief recess while he and others regrouped to figure out what issue they could hammer through next.

“But don’t go anywhere,” Dodd’s voice boomed across the table to his fellow House and Senate negotiators. “It’s not an excuse to leave the room.”

The committee had not even started to publicly hash out the two most contentious provisions in the bill–first, a proposal to rein in the ability of banks to make trades with their own money, a practice called proprietary trading; and second, the hot-button question of how to curb the $600 trillion derivatives market that helped fuel the economic meltdown. The break in committee proceedings dragged on, but participants stayed. And Dodd and other key players used the time to work the packed room, shuffling back and forth among staffers, lobbyists, and other lawmakers on the committee.

“There were plenty of pitfalls for this bill, even right to the end,” said Bert Ely, a banking consultant who opposed the bill.

But by dawn on Friday, a bleary-eyed Dodd was celebrating, along with his other colleagues on the committee. In the wee hours, Dodd and his House counterpart, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., had hammered out a compromise on those last two dicey issues. The committee had just one more task–agreeing to name it the Dodd-Frank bill after the two chairmen.

“It’s a great moment,” an exhausted Dodd said as the marathon session finally broke up. “No one will know until this is actually in place how it works, but we believe we’ve done something that has been needed for a long time.”

Seventy-two hours later, in the interview on Monday, Dodd was more rested but no more relaxed, as he contemplated the prospects of falling short by a vote or two when the bill goes to the Senate floor, which could happen later this week. Dodd’s staff cleared most of his scheduled appointments for the day, giving him time to make calls to wavering senators and field calls from other key players who were also working to hold the deal together.

Even before the interview started, an aide interrupted. “It’s Congressman Frank.” Later that afternoon, as Dodd was rushing to the Senate floor, another aide’s cell phone buzzed; this time it was White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Dodd would not divulge the details of those conversations, or any others he’s had over the last day or so. But it was clear he was still on edge about the fate of the bill. It was also clear he was enjoying every minute of the political back-and-forth. “I love what I do, yes,” he said when asked if it was going to be hard to leave, particularly when he appears to be at the top of his game.

Dodd said he did not set out to rehabilitate his career and never had a plan to go out on such a high note. “It’s more coincidence than anything else,” he said. “An awful lot happened on my watch.”

But his decision to stay on as chair of the Banking Committee was no coincidence. It ensured he would be at the center of action this year. When pressed on that, Dodd said he would have preferred, after Kennedy died, to take his best friend’s place as the head of the health and labor panel, where he could have tackled personal passions such as children’s health care and public education.

But, Dodd said, “I didn’t like the idea that someone might say, ‘You know what, he walked away from the job.'”

As he took up that task, there were different cross-currents operating than if he’d been facing a tough re-election. Some observers said Dodd’s retirement gave him a freer hand in crafting a deal. He did not have to worry that every political compromise he struck would end up in a 30-second ad hammering him for caving in to one special interest or another. Dodd also had a lot more time on his hands, without the grueling fundraising and campaign schedule that accompanies any tough Senate bid.

“We all get very strung out at times,” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the banking committee. Initial efforts by Dodd and Shelby to co-sponsor a bill broke down, and the Republican wound up opposing the reform measure. “He’s been freer… This has enabled him to concentrate” more on the bill.

Dodd said he didn’t make any deal he wouldn’t have otherwise, but he said it was a “relief” not to have reporters writing stories about whether each agreement he brokered was in some way tied to a campaign donation or the latest political poll.

Dodd dismissed the idea that he’s been working to burnish his legacy in his final days. But he said it did–and still does–weigh on him that if this deal collapses, the window of opportunity may be closed for many years. “If this doesn’t work, it will be a quarter century before someone tries this again,” Dodd said. “It’s like health care. You have a moment.”

Dodd also conceded that there was a level of personal satisfaction, even vindication, in the idea that he is leaving with headlines about his accomplishments, rather than his difficulties. There was the mortgage flap, in which it was disclosed that he had been put into a “VIP” program by Countrywide Financial, which later failed spectacularly in the housing meltdown. Although the ethics committee cleared him of allegations that he had received special treatment, the charges still sting.

And there was his Quixotic 2008 presidential campaign, when he moved his family to Iowa in hopes of winning the support of early caucus voters there. Iowans weren’t impressed, and neither were voters in Connecticut. Moreover, some wondered if his preoccupation with the presidency distracted him from the brewing crisis on Wall Street.

Dodd acknowledged that he’s glad those events have been succeeded by more recent triumphs. “Maybe people only remember the last things you do,” he said.

Even as he was reflecting on his legislative achievements, he was girding for the next fight-and not just the end-game over financial reform. He’s got a line-up of other less contentious items on his plate, from paycheck equity to transit security.

So how can he possibly want to retire?

“As every one of our parents told us at one time or another, ‘Don’t be the last person to leave the party, even when you’re having a great time’,” Dodd said. “And so I’m enjoying it immensely but that’s almost the time” to go.