Thomas R. Carper is having one heck of a week.
Even the most soft-spoken congressional workhorse can expect to end up with an occasional moment in the spotlight. Rarely does a senator with as low a profile as the Delaware Democrat end up in the national headlines twice in a few hours — and for two totally different reasons.
In the middle of Tuesday afternoon, Carper stood out as the only member of his party voting in favor of advancing the trade liberalization legislation, the most consequential economic policy bill of the year.
By the end of Tuesday night, he stood out as one of the luckiest and most prominent people aboard Amtrak train 188, having gotten off only minutes before its deadly derailment in Philadelphia.
In talking about both events, Carper portrayed himself as something of a bystander watching forces beyond his control, though he’s actually an important if rarely heralded player on both trade and transportation policy.
“I’m committed to making sure we don’t let all this hard work go by the wayside and that we get this trade legislation done,” he said of the decision by all his fellow Democrats to block the “fast-track” bill on its first procedural test vote , after concluding the accommodations Carper and other pro-trade senators on the Finance Committee initially secured from Republicans were not good enough.
“I always try to put myself in the shoes of other people, the Golden Rule, and last night and today I’ve done that, and I’m feeling for them, hurting for them, praying for them,” he said Wednesday of his fellow passengers, at least seven of whom died while more than 200 were injured in one of the worst accidents in decades on the national rail network.
Tangible moves on both fronts came later in the day. While planning a visit to those hospitalized after the crash, he was contributing to the effort that resurrected the trade measure after less than a day in limbo.
Carper has spent his entire political life in the shadow of another Delaware Democrat, one who also has commuted daily between Wilmington and Union Station. And it was Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — after whom the train station in his hometown is named — who got much of the press the morning after the crash, with his comment that “Amtrak is like a second family to me.”
Carper also got less attention than the former member of Congress with whom he had been chatting in the café car, until exiting the locomotive half an hour before the crash. Democrat Patrick J. Murphy, a Philadelphia attorney who served two House terms before losing in 2010, tweeted photographs of the chaos inside the train, with one of his images even topping the front page of Wednesday’s New York Times.
No matter what the cause proves to be — early indication is that the train was going more than 100 miles per hour when it hit the curve — Amtrak’s advocates are sure to cite the derailment as evidence that federal spending on railroad maintenance and safety upgrades has been inadequate. At a minimum, they will seek an infusion of cash to rebuild the section of track that was ripped apart when the crash occurred.
And Carper is as well positioned as any senator to press Amtrak’s case. He was on the railroad’s eight-member board of directors for four years. He has sway over surface transportation policy both as a member of Finance (which would have to approve any new revenue sources for the railroad) and as the ranking Democrat on Homeland Security and Government Operations, which has jurisdictional tentacles into aspects of rail safety. And in the next Congress — with Barbara A. Mikulski's retirement — he’ll be the senior senator from the nine states served by the Northeast Corridor, the electrified railway line between Capitol Hill and Boston.
(The 68-year-old Carper, who’s in the middle of his third Senate term, has already eclipsed the vice president’s record as the longest-serving statewide official in Delaware history. Biden was a senator for 36 years. Carper is now in his 39th consecutive year in elected office, having been a senator since 2001, governor for the previous eight years, Delaware’s solitary House member for a decade before that and state treasurer from 1977 through 1982.)
Before boarding the ill-fated train, Carper was among 10 pro-trade Democratic senators summoned to the Oval Office by President Barack Obama, who pressed them to agree to a bargain with the GOP that returned the trade bill to the Senate floor. Obama wants a potential trade agreement with 11 other Pacific Rim nations to become one of the big achievements of his second term , but that won’t happen unless Congress approves legislation turning off its own power to amend the accord.
Within hours, Carper’s group agreed to support that bill without provisions to countermand monetary devaluations by trading partners, and the GOP in return agreed to give the Democrats a vote on a stand-alone currency manipulation measure. All sides agreed that combining the two would have effectively killed prospects for the Pacific trade accord.
The Tuesday trade vote was not the only time this year when Carper was alone among Senate Democrats in backing Obama rather than joining in a protest vote aimed at the GOP. Essentially the same thing happened in March, when Republicans sought to make the other side squirm by forcing a symbolic vote of confidence in the entirety of Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget blueprint. Democratic leaders told the rank and file to feel free to avoid taking the bait, and 45 of them did so by voting “no.” Only Carper voted “yes.”
As a reward for being such a loyal Obama ally this year, Carper and his wife, Martha, were invited to April’s state dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. There, the senator displayed the affable, if quirky, sense of self-effacing humor that gets as much attention in the Capitol as his crusades for revamping the Postal Service or overhauling cybersecurity policy.
Asked by the throng of red carpet photographers to identify themselves, Carper flashed his off-center grin but didn’t miss a beat: “I’m Orrin Hatch, and this is my wife.”
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