Casey quietly gaining a voice on Syria
WASHINGTON - Sen. Bob Casey found himself in an unusual place last week: the national spotlight.
Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat whose defining features may be his low-key demeanor and modest public profile, was interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN and Greta Van Susteren on Fox, and appeared on MSNBC to discuss Syria hours after President Obama's national address.
In the Capitol's ornate Lyndon Baines Johnson Room, Casey was part of a meeting with a clutch of powerhouse senators, among them John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), as they worked on ways to build congressional support for a U.S. military strike in Syria before attention shifted to international negotiations.
For Casey, 53, the national focus on Syria and his role near the center of the Senate debate was the culmination of years of behind-the-scenes study on an issue that, until recently, garnered little attention.
It also reflected his profile in Washington: a senator with little inclination (or talent) for electrifying moments, but, colleagues and friends say, a steady, studious approach.
"The thing that I think over time gains you the most credibility is something real simple: hard work," Casey said Thursday in an interview in his office.
Sometimes criticized as an invisible senator with a big family name but not the accomplishments to match, Casey has seen the Syria debate give him influence on a matter of international import after years of unglamorous work.
In roughly four years leading a Senate subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa and South and Central Asia, Casey visited Israel, Afghanistan, and Pakistan three times each and Iraq twice.
He met Syrian opposition figures in Turkish refugee camps, sat with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and spoke with Egyptian military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. ("I realized talking to him how tough he is, how smart he is, but also how challenging he can be to deal with," Casey said of Sisi.)
When the U.S. ambassador to Syria testified at a 2011 hearing, Fox News reported that Casey was the only senator who stayed long enough to ask him questions.
"A lot of these issues, they demand time," Casey said. "Going to hearings is important, getting briefings or at least having conversations with experts on a regular basis is important, and I frankly wish I could do more of that."
His diligence is paired with a soft voice. He loads his comments with details, asides, and nuanced caveats, not fireworks.
When others were looking away, Casey began speaking out about the violence in Syria in March 2011. This past May, McCain, unprompted, rose on the Senate floor to praise Casey's "forthright and courageous" stand on the conflict there.
So when Casey sees the debate unfolding now, he bristles at some of the GOP criticism aimed at Obama.
"Some who are talking a lot today haven't done much for the last two years," he said, using his softspoken tones to throw a rare elbow.
When the Syria resolution bogged down in the face of opposition last weekend, Casey called McCain's cellphone, and they agreed to meet, along with others backing the use of U.S. force.
Casey detailed the week's events while talking in his Capitol Hill office, which reflects his respect for history and tradition. He occupies the office that once belonged to John F. Kennedy, and pictures of the ex-senator and president adorn the walls.
On a coffee table are two books: one of Abraham Lincoln's manuscripts, and one about critical moments in Senate history.
All of which perhaps explains why Casey has taken a traditional route in the Senate: listening, learning, keeping his head down, and usually supporting his party leaders even as freshman senators such as Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and even fellow Pennsylvanian Pat Toomey blow up old notions of quietly waiting your turn.
In a hyperspeed political age when even rookie senators find it increasingly easy to insert themselves into big debates, Casey is rarely at the forefront of high-profile fights. His work often homes in on local issues important back home, but hardly the stuff of exciting national headlines.
A Friday news release from his office touted his support for an energy-efficiency research hub at Philadelphia's Navy Yard.
Compared with some recent Pennsylvania senators - Arlen Specter, Rick Santorum - his notoriety pales.
"He's a very, very solemn kind of person, introspective, thoughtful," said T.J. Rooney, a former Democratic state chairman. "All those adjectives that are rarely applied to people in political life."
Toomey, a Republican in his first term, manages more often to inject himself into national debates: His relentless focus on fiscal issues has given him a hand in Congress' economic battles, and his canny use of Senate rules to block bills has brought small but tangible victories for austerity.
Casey doesn't have such an obvious calling card, though he argues that the unifying theme is Pennsylvania's economy and jobs. Aides say his desire to be helpful means he pays attention to a wide range of topics, rather than claiming just one.
Republican strategist Charlie Gerow said Casey has never sought attention - "I don't think it's in his DNA" - but praised his quiet work and frequent partnership with Toomey.
Other Republicans are less charitable. Tom Smith, Casey's opponent in last year's election, dubbed him "Senator Zero" - before losing convincingly to him.
After his win, Casey, nearly seven years into his Senate career - and nine months into his second term - has seen his patience open opportunities.
He is working on plans to expand early childhood education, a priority for Obama, and, after his visceral reaction to the Newtown school shooting changed his views on firearms, Casey hopes to help a renewed push to strengthen gun laws.
He has also landed a seat on the Senate Finance Committee, a coveted, A-list panel that oversees tax policy. The posting showed faith from Democratic leaders. "You've got to be on top of your game," a senior Democratic aide said.
For Casey, it also meant leaving the foreign-policy post and starting to study again from the bottom rung up.
But if long-awaited plans to overhaul the tax code advance, Casey will have a hand in a debate affecting the finances of every family and business in the land.
With a self-deprecating smile, though, he quipped that for all the issues that stir up excitement, tax reform is "not one that's pulsating on cable news."
As the interview ended, Casey turned his attention elsewhere. He had a conference call on boosting funding for county and municipal bridges.