After two quiet years, Blumenthal prepares to step up
Blumenthal positioned well as he becomes state's senior senator
Just a few weeks ago, he was a first-term senator with less than two years' experience. His activist nature was muffled by the ancient Senate seniority system, stifling as a foot of snow in the backcountry of his native Connecticut.
But for Richard Blumenthal, the thaw is coming quickly.
In a few days he will officially become Connecticut's senior senator. He's picked up key committee assignments -- the maximum five allowed by Senate rules -- and he's ready to start leveraging a host of personal relationships that he's cultivated.
His Democratic Party, emboldened by re-electing a president and actually adding two seats to its Senate majority, is ready to get something done, and Blumenthal appears to have positioned himself well.
In January, Blumenthal will add seats on the Commerce, Veterans' Affairs and Aging committees to the Armed Services and Judiciary posts he already had.
Commerce and Judiciary both give Blumenthal a chance to use his experience as a consumer advocate and prosecutor. Veterans' Affairs and Military Affairs, an unusual double dose of military responsibility, could not be more timely as he tries to build clout. The military -- as well as Connecticut's huge defense-industry sector -- needs him badly. Budget pressures and war's end will bring calls for spending cuts, and some of the staunchest advocates of the military, such as Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.; Richard Lugar, R-Ind.; and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., are leaving Congress.
In an interview, Blumenthal said the military faces "a huge challenge."
"We need to be very careful, if we are to reduce defense spending, that we do it as intelligently and carefully as possible," Blumenthal said.
He made it clear he thinks that does not include cutting Connecticut economic staples such as Sikorsky helicopters and submarines from Electric Boat in Groton.
Submarines' "stealth and strength is unmatched," he said. "The weapons systems and intelligence gathering enabled by our submarines today is vital."
The military "will be leaner," he said, and "as we go to more mobile and agile special operations force ... the concept of bases overseas changes. We probably don't need as many." He also has called for reforming procurement to make defense dollars go further.
His two years as a legislative rookie were not easy for Blumenthal, who was used to a decisive role in the executive branch of government after 20 years as Connecticut's attorney general. "When I made a decision, something happened," Blumenthal said bemusedly earlier this year.
The Washington learning curve was brutal -- a curriculum no less daunting than the ones he mastered during a glittering academic career at Harvard, Cambridge and Yale Law. It included "the rules of the Senate, written and unwritten; the issues, the personalities ... I have had to learn that I have a lot to learn," he said this summer with characteristic self-deprecation.
He is an enormously disciplined man, measured in every sense, almost austere, a swimmer and a runner, whip-thin, his only visible vice the inability to pass a coffee pot without refreshing his cup.
"Blumenthal has acted ... like Hillary Clinton and Bill Bradley did in their first two years in the Senate, deferring to his more senior colleagues, figuring out how to operate in a very different environment," said Norman Ornstein, a longtime congressional observer and analyst and a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.
"Now you're going to see him be more assertive. He's going to be a player now. I think he's handled the transition quite artfully."
While Blumenthal is still reserved and quiet in his approach, he clearly feels much more sanguine about his ability to make things happen. His words are chosen with a lawyer's care, but also with a reformer's passion.
Blumenthal the wonk is fairly bristling with issues he's ready to attack, or has already begun work on:
Gun control. Blumenthal has been unequivocal in his response to the Sandy Hook massacre, calling for a renewed ban on automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines, and the closing of the so-called gun-show loophole, in which buyers can avoid background checks. He vows that he "won't be deterred" by the NRA or other organizations "that use scare tactics."
Immigration reform. Each week, Blumenthal addresses the Senate on the Dream Act, telling the story of a different young Connecticut resident who would be helped by the legislation if it were enacted into law. Last week, it was Solange, a young Colombia-born East Haven resident, a member of her school's student council, in the Honor Society, and longing to go to college. On many Fridays when he's back in Connecticut, Blumenthal attends naturalization ceremonies, which he calls "a profoundly moving experience." Blumenthal thinks that with the November election, there's a golden opportunity to achieve real reform.
Internet privacy, and cybersecurity. He's been a major advocate of protecting against -- and compensating victims of -- breaches of internet privacy. He's also pushing to keep employees from having to provide passwords to their private accounts to potential or current employers.
Consumer health, including tobacco, energy drinks, pharmacy compounding centers, and more. Regarding recent reports of deaths attributed to energy drinks, the admitted coffee addict says, "Caffeine is not harmful if consumed in moderation, if the person consuming it has no heart condition or other physical susceptibility -- and is not a child or adolescent. And that's the clear marker."
He's very worried about drinks that carry far in excess of the maximum recommended daily dosage of caffeine for adolescents, plus other additives, coupled with statistics that show "children and adolescents are using these energy drinks in vastly increasing quantities." He says he's asked the FDA repeatedly for "better science -- more investigation, enhanced research. And in the meantime ... better warnings, labeling, so people know what the risks are." He's also concerned that the drinks "portray themselves as dietary supplements, and therefore beyond the risk of any regulation." Regarding regulating compounding pharmacies, he said, "The Food and Drug Administration has failed to use the authority it has."
Veterans. "We must keep faith with our veterans, leave no veterans behind," he said. "I'm fighting for better education, for skill training, and job opportunities, but also health care -- traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress syndrome continue to be a problem for some of our veterans."
The military. He says a huge short-term issue is how to preserve the talented "next greatest generation" in today's military. "The quality of our personnel is just extraordinary ... we have to retain them," he says.
Constituent services are still a core priority. "Every one of these issues has a local impact, a local face," he says, adding that people from his home state "educate me on the real-world impacts of things like the backlog of applications for veterans' benefits."
In early December, rumors surfaced that he would be President Obama's pick to replace the embattled Eric Holder as attorney general. Blumenthal was blunt in his denial. Now that it looks like Holder might stay an extra year into the second Obama administration, would Blumenthal be interested next year in such a move?
Absolutely not, he says. He's committed to his current job for the remainder of his 6-year term, "and to continue as long as the people of Connecticut honor me with this position.
"I'm delighted and happy to be a United States senator. I am grateful every day, and I mean literally every day, to the people of Connecticut for electing me."