Are Sen. Chuck Grassley’s actions in 2013 an indicator of his plans for 2016?
Iowa’s senior congressional Republican since 1985, Grassley has voted against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, relief for the Northeast for Hurricane Sandy, and now is threatening to vote to send the U.S. government into sequestration, which is an across-the-board series of spending cuts to domestic and foreign services scheduled to start next month.
Grassley, 79, told The Gazette he has reasons for his votes this month. But because he is undecided about running for re-election — and because a series of Senate Republicans have fallen to more conservative primary challenges over the past three years — some observers see Grassley as either voting protectively or voting independently because he doesn’t care about re-election.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, already announced he won’t seek re-election in 2014. Harkin is 73.
“My guess is that if anything, if Sen. Grassley is going to run for re-election, he is more likely to face a challenger from the right in the primary than he is to face a real challenge from a Democrat,” said political science professor Dave Peterson of Iowa State University.
“If the lesson of the last election is anything to go by to forecast the future, he has nothing to worry about the general election. He is well-liked, he has a record that fits the state of Iowa well, and he has accomplishments that he can run on. But as he looks around at his fellow Republicans in the Senate, who were moderately favored to win in the primary and lost, if I’m Grassley, I’m thinking, ‘I have to shore up my base right now.’ That’s where his concerns are.”
Since 2005, Grassley has had an impressive conservative voting record as monitored by the National Journal in Washington. He has voted conservatively between 73.8 percent and 79.3 percent of the time with Republicans over those years, according to the Journal. According to a separate Washington Post voter database, his record is even more impressive among conservatives — the Post said he has voted with Republicans 91 percent of the time, up from 86 percent in the last congressional session.
There were some exceptions. Grassley voted recently to extend unemployment benefits, which most Republicans opposed, and he voted against repealing an ethanol subsidy, which most Democrats and Republicans favored.
Grassley said the issues have come up during several town hall meetings he held across the state in the past week. He said he is simply following his principles, and they have nothing to do with his uncertainty for 2016. On the Violence Against Women Act, Grassley said he voted against the bill because the non-partisan Congressional Research Service sent senators a memo saying the legislation was unconstitutional on two counts, because it allowed for double-jeopardy prosecution and because it allowed American Indian tribal juries to try non-Native Americans.
Grassley said he proposed an amendment that would have provided $25 million for more prosecutors and magistrates to fix the problem, and he reminded Iowans that he has consistently voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act over the years.
“There is a problem about violence against women, but you can’t do it in an unconstitutional way,” Grassley said. “I think they’ll straighten this out in the House, and I’ll be able to vote for it in conference.”
On relief for Hurricane Sandy, Grassley said he opposed it because it contained more money for more measures than necessary. On sequestration, Grassley said he would only oppose it if it contained tax measures.
On his re-election foray, Grassley said he is not in doubt, but is still thinking. He reminded Iowans that he is raising money, contacting party leaders and conducting town hall meetings around the state.
“I do the things you need to do to be ready for re-election,” Grassley said.
“I’m going to continue to do that. Every issue I vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on is based upon what’s in front of me.”
Peterson sees a Republican strategy in the Senate. He points out that most politicians are strategists and that Republicans are willing to give Grassley cover on issues that give him gratitude in his home state if his vote is not necessary.
“These ideas are all hot-button tea party issues. … But a lot of these decisions aren’t close. So senators like Grassley are given a little more freedom to move around and tell people in their state, ‘Look, I stood up for this.’ Republicans would be stupid if this weren’t a coordinated effort. They’ll never admit it, but we all know it’s true,” Peterson said.
Political scientist Ross Baker of Rutgers University doesn’t see any strategy in Grassley’s recent votes because it is simply too early to be thinking about 2016.
“If it was 2014, I would say that almost certainly he was trying to stay in the good graces of the conservative voters in his state. But I just don’t think senators begin to act in that protective manner three years in advance,” Baker said. “Grassley is an old hand around there. I can’t believe he would begin pulling in his horns so early. Looking at the behavior of a typical senator, they don’t start trying to protect themselves until at least a couple of years before a primary challenge.”