Toomey says he fears growing political 'polarization,' points finger at Biden

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, on the fifth day of the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.

All of the historic and tumultuous events of 2020 and 2021 – the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump being impeached twice, racial unrest and riots in the streets of numerous United States cities, and the storming of the U.S. Capitol – have left U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey feeling “kind of worrisome, to be honest.”

“For an optimistic guy, I'm pretty concerned,” Toomey said during a Zoom meeting with The Tribune-Democrat editorial board.

He continued: “Much of it, much of it, obviously not the pandemic itself, but much of it is a reflection of real polarization of our politics and really, in many ways, our culture. I have to tell you I am very deeply disappointed that President (Joe) Biden, who campaigned on the idea of trying to diminish the polarization, to try to find common ground, to be a unifying figure, has governed in the exact opposite fashion so far.”

When asked what role his party has had in creating the polarization, Toomey responded: “I'm sure Republicans, we've played our share of this. We're a polarized country, and that is reflected in Washington. But again, I think it's completely false to suggest that there's a complete equivalence here.”

As one of his first acts, Biden signed an executive order for the country to reenter the Paris Agreement on climate control, from which the United States withdrew from under President Donald Trump, a Republican. The new president also recently championed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan for COVID-19 relief, which received no GOP votes in the Congress after 10 Republican senators presented a $600 billion counterproposal.

Meanwhile, some Democrats have recommended eliminating the filibuster, a tool used by the minority to block legislation in the Senate.

“The equivalent situation occurred during the first two years of the Trump administration, except the Republicans actually had an outright majority in the Senate,” Toomey said. “It wasn't a 50/50 Senate. We had (52). We had a majority in the House. We had the White House. Under those circumstances, if we had nuked the filibuster and created a simple majority for everything, we could have done anything we wanted. And Republican senators – if not unanimously, nearly unanimously – said we're not going to do that. Even though it's going to make it more difficult for us to do the things we want to do, policy will be more enduring, and it will be more reflective of an American consensus if we require ourselves to get a bipartisan commitment where we can, as we always have.”

'Another 21 months'

Toomey said he understood there would be backlash from within his own party when he voted to convict Trump during his second impeachment hearing.

The Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania rebuked him. Locally, the Cambria County Republican Committee circulated a petition to censure Toomey and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat, for supporting the belief that the impeachment was constitutional.

“It doesn't change the fact that I did what I believed then was right,” Toomey said. “I still think it's right. It does not affect how I will finish out my term. I've got another 21 months and I'm going to continue to be a conservative Republican that I have been for the last 11 years. That's just the way it's going to be.”

Trump was accused of inciting an insurrection that occurred when his supporters raided the Capitol to disrupt the Electoral College process to confirm Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Trump alleged that the election was stolen through fraud, which has never been proven in any court of law.

Seven Republican senators were among the 57 who voted to find Trump guilty, but the two-thirds super-majority needed for conviction was not reached.

Toomey called his decision “a vote of conscience.”

“I think the president knew what he was doing,” Toomey said. “I think the idea that the president would encourage people to believe something that was not true, and then incite them to actually march on the Capitol for the purpose of preventing the peaceful transfer of power, so that he could hold onto power, that kind of goes to the heart of what is an impeachable offense in my view.

"It goes to the heart of our constitutional system. It is the first time in the history of the republic that we didn't have a peaceful transition of power. Just a terrible, terrible moment for the country.”

'Employment and rising wages'

Toomey, like many Republicans in the House and Senate, has decried the American Rescue Plan as a "liberal wish list" that “had almost nothing to do with COVID, had almost nothing to do with an economic recovery.”

Part of the plan includes sending $350 billion to state and local governments after five other COVID packages were passed in 2020.

“A very common situation for Pennsylvania cities, and townships, and boroughs and counties is they don't know what to do with all this money,” Toomey said. “The fact is – in the aggregate, as well as in the vast majority of cases in Pennsylvania – state and local governments took in more revenue in 2020 than they ever did before in their history. And, on top of that, we had sent them $500 billion in addition to the record revenue. So when the Democrats come along earlier this year and say 'Oh, and now we have to send them another $350 billion,' it's ridiculous, completely indefensible.”

Instead of a large federal spending bill, Toomey thinks “the goal should be to get back to full employment and rising wages. That enables people to improve their circumstances better – in my view – than a new government program.”

He said the “extremely imprudent” plan “is going to come back and haunt us, probably sooner than most people think.”

Elections, race relations

Toomey opposes the For the People Act, a Democratic proposal dealing with elections and voting that includes numerous provisions, such as requiring:

• Same-day voter registration

• Expanding access to absentee and mail-in ballots

• making a public-financing program available to congressional candidates

• Establishing independent commissions to draw congressional district lines.

It would also reduce the Federal Election Commission from six members – with no more than three allowed from the same political party – to five with the goal of reducing tie votes. Currently, four votes are required to find violations or promote regulations, a setup that is designed to foster bipartisanship. The proposal would limit the maximum number per party to two. The fifth member would ostensibly be an independent person appointed by the president.

The For the People Act has passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

But it faces a possible GOP filibuster in the Senate, which would require 60 out of 100 votes to end debate and bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

“Here's what's so terrible about this,” Toomey said. “You can argue, and I'd be happy to argue about why the individual policies are a bad idea – things like virtually preventing voter ID to verify the identity of a person who's voting; politicizing the Federal Election Commission for the first time, never been a politicized body, they want to do that; allowing, requiring that ballot harvesting be permitted.

“These are very bad policies. They are – let's be honest – they are designed to give a systemic advantage to Democrats in federal elections. That's their purpose. But what's really, really terrible about this is they are dishonestly suggesting, insisting, that opposition to this makes you a racist. That's a lie. And it's a pernicious lie because it's a really bad idea to inflame racial tensions at any time, especially at a time like this. And they're doing it so as to make the case for why they ought to be able to get rid of the filibuster despite the fact that when the shoe was on the other foot and Republicans had complete control of the elected government, just two years ago, we did not get rid of the filibuster. We thought that would be bad for the country.”

Toomey has announced he will not run again in 2022.

He most recently won re-election in 2016, a year in which Trump accelerated the movement of low- and middle-income white, blue collar voters to the GOP, but also started to drive away mid- to upper-middle-income suburban voters.

“The challenge for Republicans I think is how do we bring back the folks that used to be with us but left in response to President Trump and how do we hold onto the people that joined our party, largely in response to President Trump,” Toomey said. “I think the idea that this is doable is evidenced in the performance of down-ballot candidates all across the country, very much including in Pennsylvania, in 2020.”

Toomey listed several areas of focus for his remaining time in office.

• As ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, Toomey thinks some “items aren't necessarily so politically polarized that it precludes progress.” He would like to address the “great unfinished work of the financial crisis of 2008” that government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were never reformed, leaving those secondary mortgage markets in a “sub-optimal arrangement.”

Toomey also wants to make sure a proper safeguarding framework exists for the “fascinating wave of technology that's changing financial services,” such as crypto currencies. Toomey hopes to improve the ability of small businesses to access capital.

• Concerning gun violence after the nation's latest mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado: “We all know there is no simple solution to this. Ultimately, what we've got to try to do is understand what are the demons that drive the madness of these young men, which it's almost always young men, to behave in this unbelievable fashion. Ultimately, that's the most important challenge, right, is to identify what's going wrong before the disaster strikes.

"In the meantime, the one policy change that I do think makes a lot of sense is the one that I've been working on for a long time – not successfully yet, but I haven't given up – and that is the idea of requiring background checks for all commercial gun sales.”

• Toomey opposes free college and – at younger ages – does not “think the federal government has a role in being a child-care provider.”

“That's just not the role of the federal government,” Toomey said. “We shouldn't take that on. Every time we expand the welfare state we create more dependency on it and we make it more difficult for people to go to work and to be productive.

“I think free college is a terrible idea. How is that fair to people who don't go to college, people who learn a trade, people who go to work in a blue-collar job? That doesn't make sense to me. It's actually OK to have a blooming economy, very low unemployment, strong wage growth and then let people decide which services they want to purchase, rather than have the government take their money in the form of taxes and then claim to provide these services.”

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