If former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) gets his way, he’ll be serving in the Senate just as the upper chamber takes up legislation concerning the budget, the debt ceiling and sequestration.
They are all fights Frank would relish.
His appointment is by no means assured. Patrick gave no indication of his preference during a press conference later that day. He offered only generic praise for Frank, calling him “a really gifted legislator, and he’d be a great senator.”
He dodged the question of a possible Frank appointment. “I have a lot of factors I’m considering and he’s definitely on the list,” Patrick said.
But Massachusetts Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said that, of the half dozen names proposed for the seat, Frank’s was one of the two that had elicited any excitement in Democratic circles within the state. The other name generating buzz is Victoria Kennedy, former Sen. Ted Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) widow.
That’s mainly because, Marsh said, “there’s no one that could do the job like Barney Frank.”
His work during the financial crisis as the chairman of the Financial Services Committee, co-authoring the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and working on subprime mortgage reform, means he has expertise and experience with a number of the issues facing Congress in the coming months.
Depending on the timeline and success of Kerry’s confirmation hearings, Frank could join the Senate as it begins work on a budget and its efforts to raise the debt ceiling.
Jim Segel, a former top Frank aide, said he had spoken with the congressman over the past two weeks to urge him to put his name in for the seat. Frank began showing interest in the option just as the negotiations surrounding the series of tax increases and budget cuts known as the “fiscal cliff” played out, Segel said.
“I think when the stalemate came last week, that piqued his attention and curiosity,” he said.
“I think normally, under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t care about the four to five months. But these four months are going to be so crucial in terms of budget priorities that I really think he wants to play a role.”
Frank himself told the Boston Globe that he decided he wanted the appointment “as I sat in the caucus room and listened to them as they outlined the [fiscal cliff] deal.”
After negotiations stalled in the House, attention shifted to the Senate, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Vice President Biden brokered a deal that passed the upper chamber with overwhelming support.
But the deal set up yet another fight in a few months, when Congress will have to address the debt ceiling as well as steep budget cuts due to sequestration.
Republicans frustrated over the initial deal have indicated they want entitlement reform to be on the table, and tax increases to be off, in the next debate. Some have also expressed a willingness to shut down the government over the debt ceiling increase.
Frank told the Globe he wants to be a “progressive” voice on a number of those issues.
“I think there are progressive ways to work on Social Security and Medicare. I think making the case against them [Tea Party Republicans] on the debt limit is important,” he said.
“A split emerged in the Republican Party over the fiscal cliff, with mainstream Republicans splitting with the radical right. I think it’s important for us to continue to exploit that. We need to reach out to conservative Republicans who nonetheless are willing to compromise, and find a way to reach a deal.”
That might be a challenge for Frank.
Over the course of his decades-long career, the outspoken lawmaker has issued criticism that could alienate some of his potential Republican colleagues in the Senate.
Frank once called Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) “hypocritical” when his name was found on the rolls of an infamous D.C. escort service, after he had touted the importance of “traditional marriage” on the Senate floor.
In 2010, Frank called Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) “cowardly” for saying he had been misled by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke into supporting the financial bailout.
And he accused Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of “either willful ignorance or absolute dishonesty” for his criticism of Democrats’ initial Wall Street reform proposal, charging that Republicans were “serving Wall Street breakfast in bed.”
Those comments, and others, could elicit a frosty reception from some Republicans.
But he has friends, too, in the upper chamber, particularly with Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who serves on the powerful Banking and Finance Committees, and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who serves on Appropriations.
Stuart Weisberg, who wrote “Barney Frank: The Story of America's Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman,” noted that despite his often bombastic statements, Frank has worked throughout his career on legislation with members of both chambers in conference committees. He also served in the House with many current senators.
“A lot of people, it takes time to get attuned to the legislative process. But Barney, with his 32 years of experience on the Hill, he starts working immediately [and] there's no learning curve. Someone else might be a figurehead, and just go vote, but Barney would be an actual participant. [He would be] very much involved,” he said.
Weisberg, who also worked as a staffer for Frank, added that the lawmaker was known as one of the best debaters in the House, and asked tough questions at hearings.
His penchant for tough questions could prove problematic for Democrats, however, if Frank takes the seat when former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R ) goes through confirmation hearings, if he is nominated by President Obama next week for secretary of Defense.
Hagel has made controversial statements about both Jews and gays, and Frank fits both those constituencies. He said late last month in a statement that he “strongly opposes” Hagel’s appointment. He called Hagel’s previous opposition to an openly-gay ambassador “aggressively bigoted.”
Frank could further complicate what already looks to be a difficult confirmation process for Hagel, who has received criticism from Republicans as well.
First, Frank must get the nod from Patrick. Democrats in Massachusetts say he’s keeping his decision quiet and hasn’t shown any preference.
But Patrick and Frank are close professionally and personally. Frank campaigned for Patrick in his early run for governor, and Patrick officiated Frank’s wedding.
Also in Frank's favor: Patrick has indicated he wants to appoint a caretaker for the seat, someone who won’t run in the special election. Frank has said multiple times he has no interest in running.
If Frank is appointed, however, he will bring added flavor to what’s already looking to be a fierce fight in Congress this spring.
Says former staffer Segal of a Sen. Frank: “I don't think he'd be shy.”