In Congress’s upper chamber, a Virginia fox may be the one to deliver the knock-out uppercut to Obamacare. Quiet, cunning, and independent, Sen. Jim Webb (D., Va.) has been on the sidelines for much of the Senate’s health-care debate. Instead of ranting, like Bernie Sanders, Webb has been mulling legislative language in his office for weeks. Neighboring Senate staffers whisper that Team Webb is having a real tough time shuffling the senator out of the office to make appearances on the glad-handing circuit. It seems the man just wants to sit, study, read, and think — strange priorities in the U.S. Senate. Yet now, with Harry Reid’s health-care bill on the ropes, Democrats are getting nervous about the brooding one. They’re right to be worried. Webb — not Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, or Evan Bayh — is the real wildcard in the Democratic caucus. Where he’ll vote, no one knows.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, is a longtime Webb watcher. He tells National Review Online that when it comes to Webb, “anything is possible.”
“He’s one of the most unusual high-level politicians I’ve ever observed,” says Sabato. “He’s unpredictable and chafes at party strictures. If things were left up to him, he’d cross party lines more often than he does. If you listen closely to what he says, you can tell he’s not nearly as political as most senators.”
Thing is, it’s hard to listen to what Webb says these days, since he doesn’t say much. Better to start with a glance at his voting record, especially on big-time votes like the 2007 immigration bill, the recent Guantanamo Bay debate, and the cap-and-trade kerfuffle.
During the immigration debate, Webb played a key role in the floor discussion. He wanted to amend the bill, in the midst of what he called a “highly emotional debate,” in order to create a “workable middle ground” that “protected the rule of law” and the “legitimate interests of all working Americans.” In the end, his amendment failed, he abandoned the bill, and it died, thanks in part to Webb’s break from the Democratic ranks.
Amendments clearly mean a lot to Webb. The message: Include his tinkering, or else he may drop out. It wouldn’t be surprising, then, to see a repeat of Webb’s immigration-debate tactics with Obamacare. Webb has voted with the GOP on its Medicare amendments, all of which have failed. Jessica Smith, Webb’s communications director, tells NRO that the health-care bill’s Medicare cuts continue to worry the senator. “Virginia has many Medicare recipients, and he was concerned about cuts to benefits and services,” she says. “The Medicare votes were important to him. He took them on substance, not on politics.”
Webb has also shown that he has no qualms about standing up to the Obama White House. During the close-Gitmo debate, Webb, a Vietnam veteran, took his time coming to his conclusions. After “having sat down with my staff and gone through the numbers in detail,” Webb announced that he couldn’t support the administration’s deadline to close the facility. That decision left the young Obama White House staggering. They needed moderate Democrats like Webb to stay with them on such a tricky national-security issue.
And on cap-and-trade legislation, Webb landed another blow on a beloved liberal cause. Speaking about the Kerry-Boxer “clean energy” bill, Webb said last month that “in its present form I would not vote for it” and that he had “some real questions about the real complexities on cap and trade.” He then reached across the aisle to co-sponsor a competing energy bill with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), the chairman of the GOP caucus.
Though Webb may not like politics, he has a keen political eye. As syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out this week, Webb “saw what happened in the elections in November” and knows that there is a “massive shift of independents against Democrats.” Indeed. The political consequences of Republican Bob McDonnell’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race are just starting to emerge. As NRO’s Jim Geraghty reported earlier this week, Webb, though not up for reelection until 2012, recently sent out a fundraising letter to Virginians. The letter, Geraghty notes, was 1,643 words long but did not include one word about health care. Then again, says Sabato, Webb is “one of the only senators who may choose to voluntarily retire after one term in 2012. He’s not eaten up with ambition.”