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Washington — During Congress’ debate on the farm bill last summer, Orange, Conn.-based Pez and other Connecticut candymakers looked for an opportunity to overhaul the federal sugar program so prices for the sweetener would fall.
They lobbied for weeks on Capitol Hill for an amendment to the farm bill that would reform the Department of Agriculture sugar program, which props up U.S. sugar prices.
Even as the sugar amendment failed, due largely to the political might of U.S. sugar growers, candymakers were glad they’d persuaded Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy to vote for it.
“It’s not like we have a lot of sugar production in Connecticut,” said Gene Duncan, president of Meriden-based chocolatier Thompson Brands. “But there are candymakers who create jobs in Connecticut.”
The vote on the sugar amendment was one of the few times either of Connecticut’s Democratic senators broke with their party on a vote last year. And when they did deviate from the party, it was often because the party’s position wasn’t liberal enough.
According to an analysis of all 291 roll call votes in the Senate, another notable rebellion was the Connecticut senators’ vote for a bill that would have rolled back the interest rate of a popular student loan.
Interest rates for Stafford subsidized loans doubled to 6.8 percent last year when a law that had kept that rate low expired, and Democrats and Republicans could not agree on a way to prevent the increase.
So a bipartisan group of senators took the matter into their own hands, crafting a compromise that would tie interest rates to the 10-year Treasury bill, plus a percentage added on.
But Connecticut’s senators rejected the compromise, even as it lowered student loan rates for thousands of Connecticut college students.
Saying the interest rate on the loan would still be too high and would likely rise each time a student took out a new loan, Blumenthal and Murphy were among only 16 Democrats — of 52 in the chamber — who voted against the bill.
“This legislation fails future generations of young people, profits off the backs of students, and adds irresponsibly to the $1 trillion of already crushing student loan debt,” Blumenthal said in a statement.
That’s not the only time the senators voted to the left of their party.
When Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wanted to blunt some of the Senate farm bill’s cuts to the food stamp program by curbing crop insurance payouts, Blumenthal and Murphy were among a minority of Senate Democrats to vote for the amendment, which failed.
Both senators were also in the minority by voting for an amendment to the farm bill that would allow states to require that genetically engineered ingredients in all food and beverages be identified. The amendment failed on a 71-27 vote.
Blumenthal said he voted for the legislation because the Connecticut General Assembly had approved a similar bill.
“It definitely reflected a Connecticut interest,” Blumenthal said. “I wanted federal law to permit Connecticut to implement that interest.”
Gary Rose, professor of political science at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, said the senators’ tilt toward liberalism “is basically not that surprising.”
“What we have done in Connecticut is we have elected two very ideological senators,” Rose said.
Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report agrees. Connecticut’s senators lean liberal “because that’s what the voters want,” she said.
In a ranking compiled last year by the National Journal, Blumenthal tied with Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to top the list of the Senate’s most liberal members, a list that includes Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Al Franken of Minnesota and Patty Murray of Washington. Murphy had been in the Senate only about a month when the National Journal released its study, so he was not ranked.
Despite a handful of rebellious votes, Blumenthal and Murphy usually voted with their party. The analysis of their 2013 votes shows Blumenthal voting with fellow Democrats and the Democratic leadership 99 percent of the time, and that Murphy was loyal to his party in 98 percent of his votes. The average in the Senate, where members often show more independence than lawmakers in the House, was 90 percent.
Blumenthal and Murphy nearly always voted in lockstep, but not all the time.
Murphy voted with the majority of Republicans against an amendment to the farm bill that would have barred the federal crop insurance program from subsidizing any premiums for crop insurance purchased by tobacco farmers. Blumenthal voted with the majority of Democrats for the amendment.
The lawmakers also split on a Democratic amendment that would repeal or reduce the estate, or inheritance, tax, “but only if done in a fiscally responsible way” that included raising other taxes to make up for lost revenues. Murphy was one of only 17 senators to vote against the amendment, Blumenthal voted with the majority for the legislation.
“I don’t support a repeal of the estate tax,” Murphy said. “It’s a longstanding position.”
The Connecticut senators also split over an amendment to a bill that authorizes spending for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The amendment would remove restrictions on projects that could be considered by the Infrastructure Deauthorization Commission. The commission was promoted by conservative Republicans to mimic the base-closing process, establishing an eight-person panel that would draw up lists of Army Corps projects deemed ineffective or wasteful and submit those lists to Congress for an up or down vote.
Blumenthal voted against the amendment, which would give the commission more latitude. Murphy voted for it.
Murphy said he supports a review of the “huge backlog” of Army Corps projects Congress has approved to determine if they have merit.
Projects in Connecticut are indeed worthy, Murphy said, but those in some other state exist only because of political reasons.