Blumenthal eases into the Senate

WASHINGTON–Democrat Richard Blumenthal is stepping out slowly and carefully in his new role as Connecticut’s junior Senator.

He hasn’t appeared at any Capitol Hill press conferences yet. He’s still mulling over his maiden Senate floor speech and deciding what his first piece of legislation should focus on. And he spent the first Senate recess on a “listening tour” of Connecticut, taking the electorate’s temperature on a range of issues.

Asked if he was tiptoeing into his new role, Blumenthal didn’t disagree, although he did note that he’s been in office all of four weeks.

“My approach is the same as it was as attorney general, where there was a learning curve,” Blumenthal said.

“Very realistically, a certain knowledge level and experience and time in grade is important in this place,” he said. So his focus right now is “just to work hard every day [and] try to learn as much as I can, as quickly as I can.”

“And,” he added, “I’m establishing relationships before I do a lot of public stuff.”

In that vein, he’s been quietly meeting with the chairmen of key committees and other senators who he sees as influential or as possible legislative partners. He declined to name names, but said “one of my priorities is to establish relationships across the aisle, which I’ve begun doing, as well as with the chairmen of the committees where I serve and some other key members.”

Without question, the Senate is a place that operates on seniority and rapport almost as much as it does on legislative prowess. And the cautious path here is well-worn, taken by many other freshmen who’ve opted to keep their heads down for the first few months, finding their Senate sea legs before making a big splash.

Plus, this Senate session has also gotten off to a particularly slow start. The chamber took a two-week recess soon after the 112th Congress was sworn in. When senators returned, they spent a week debating their procedural rules before moving on to a somewhat sleepy debate over a federal aviation bill.

Only on Wednesday did things heat up with the first high-profile vote-over whether to repeal the health reform law. (Blumenthal voted no on full repeal, but joined with Republicans and Democrats in passing a measure to overturn one small provision affecting small business tax requirements.)

Blumenthal said the gradual Senate start-up has given him a little extra time to adjust. He’s moved to a new, but still temporary, office, which he said is an improvement on the one-room basement digs he had at first. “We have windows,” he declared happily.

He’s also added a few more staffers, although his office roster isn’t fully fleshed out yet. “We are more than halfway, probably three quarters of the way, to a full staff,” he said.

Even with the low-key backdrop provided by the current Senate, Blumenthal’s somewhat quiet kick-off comes in marked contrast to the booming presence of his predecessor, retired Sen. Chris Dodd, who held the seat for 30 years and was anything but subdued.

“He’s replacing a 30-year veteran who was very popular and full of stories,” noted ex-Rep. Rob Simmons, an unsuccessful GOP Senate contender. “He’s got plenty of time to pick it up,” Simmons said of Blumenthal, but he shouldn’t wait too long.

“There’s been a lot of discussion that in losing Sen. Dodd and now Sen. Lieberman, Connecticut will be losing a lot of clout,” Simmons noted. “So this is not the time for tiptoeing… He’s got big shoes to fill.”

Lieberman’s retirement announcement means that Blumenthal will become Connecticut’s senior senator after the 2012 election cycle. In a brief interview Wednesday, Blumenthal dismissed questions about that looming promotion, saying it’s a good ways off.

At the moment, he seems more cognizant of his low rank on the totem pole (he is 98th in seniority).

His newcomer status was on full display this week. He stumbled on Monday when he came late to his duties presiding over the Senate, earning a rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who’d had to fill in for him.

Blumenthal said he’d been in a meeting with Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and arrived just a few minutes late. He declined to elaborate on his exchange with Reid.

He was more surefooted during his first committee hearings this week–one focused on the foreclosure crisis and another on the constitutionality of the health care reform law, both before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He’s been prepping for an Armed Services hearing on Iraq set for today.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who sat next Blumenthal at both Judiciary sessions, said he enjoyed listening to his new colleague’s remarks and remarked on Blumenthal’s legal expertise. “He was attorney general for, what was it, about 50 years?” the comedian-turned-politician cracked.

Blumenthal smiled obligingly. During both sessions, he sat patiently for his turn to ask a question. At the health care hearing, that didn’t come until more than 90 minutes in.

By then, almost every conceivable query had already been posed by a more senior member of the panel. Blumenthal got into the legal weeds with an inquiry about Monday’s ruling by a Florida judge that the health law was unconstitutional.

He asked the witnesses, a gamut of constitutional experts, whether they were surprised or troubled by the “inadequate attention” the Florida judge had given to the presumption of constitutionality that courts normally afford to legislative acts.  It was not, by any stretch, a headline-grabbing moment.

Blumenthal, despite his reputation for basking in media attention, seemed perfectly content to have it that way–at least for now. He seemed glad just to finally be on the other side of the dais, after having been at the witness table offering testimony in previous years.

“I hope and expect to be very active,” Blumenthal said after the Judiciary hearing Wednesday. But right now, he said, he’s trying to learn the ropes of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the ins-and-outs of the health care reform law, among other tasks.

Asked if he’s figured out what his first Senate floor speech will focus on or what issue his first bill will tackle, he said: “I’ve certainly thought a lot about it and … ” he paused, “stay tuned.”

Adrienne Fulco, director of the Public Policy and Law Program at Trinity College, said she’s not surprised that Blumenthal hasn’t been more aggressive right out of the box. Where Dodd was “jocular,” she said, Blumenthal is “studious.”

“I think he is methodical. I think he’s careful,” she said. “It’s his nature… He’s not somebody who jumps into ice water. He’s got to get in at just the right temperature–and not just because he doesn’t want to make mistakes, but because he wants to be effective.”