Tom Cotton marks two milestones this week. As of Monday, more than half of his senatorial career will have elapsed (63 days!) since his pugilistic letter warning Iran against cutting a nuclear deal with the Obama administration. And Wednesday is the Arkansas Republican’s 38th birthday, another reminder he’s the youngest senator in two decades.
Those twin occasions provide an opportunity to note just how unusually hot and fast Cotton’s start has been. Even in a Senate where newcomers no longer feel obligated to bide their time or defer to their elders, as they did for so much of history, just four months of combativeness may have determined the personality of Cotton’s entire congressional life — no matter how long it lasts. That may not be a problem if he doesn’t plan on remaining in Washington very long, and is mainly concerned with gaining maximum love from other confrontational conservatives while at the Capitol.
If he makes something even approaching a career in the Senate, though, Cotton will inevitably want flexibility to modify his style. And he may find (in another way Capitol Hill is like college ) it can be pretty tough to overcome a reputation of being too “out there” freshman year.
Cotton is sending every signal he’s ready, if not eager, to run that risk.
“Some people say I’m ‘a young man in a hurry.’ Guess what? They're right. We've got urgent problems and I am in a hurry to solve them,” he said in announcing his Senate bid in August 2013, when he’d been a House member all of seven months. He repeated versions of the line dozens of times on the way to unseating two-term Democrat Mark Pryor by 17 points. The sentiment has infused most everything Cotton has done since.
He was totally unrepentant last week, following the first legislative trouncing of his young tenure — brought on by provoking a confrontation with someone who, by custom, is supposed to be every new senator’s most essential ally and incubator: The floor leader of his own caucus, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
By custom, it’s the majority leader’s exclusive power to “fill the tree” — a parliamentary maneuver effectively preventing anyone else from offering amendments. But Cotton and his fifth-year colleague Marco Rubio of Florida teamed up to claim the leader’s prerogative for themselves on the legislation creating a congressional review process for any Iran nuclear agreement.
Their aim was to secure votes on proposals that made fellow foreign policy hawks swoon, but would have poisoned the bill while putting many fellow Republicans in a politically uncomfortable spot. (Cotton’s was designed to end Iran’s nuclear program, Rubio’s to pressure Tehran to recognize Israel’s right to exist.)
McConnell reclaimed the upper hand with the only move available to him. He called a halt to the debate, setting aside his promises of running a more open Senate and his plans for some votes on GOP amendments crafted to make Democrats uneasy. At that point, the bill passed , 98 to Cotton.
Still, the freshman expressed zero remorse about misplaying his hand, undercutting McConnell or fomenting a GOP civil war. During the debate, Cotton labeled senators reluctant to vote on his or Rubio’s amendments as in the wrong line of work and maybe wanting to “host a talk show” instead. Even more remarkably, he blamed getting outmaneuvered entirely on “Democratic intransigence.”
That Cotton’s default setting is “leaning way in” became equally clear from his tradition-be-damned Senate behavior from the week before — taking to Twitter to mix it up with the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Cotton fired off a quartet of tweets challenging Zarif to debate the meaning of the Constitution and “Iran’s record of tyranny, treachery and terror.” He added that he’d “understand” if the foreign minister declined because, “after all, in your 20s, you hid in US during Iran-Iraq war while peasants & kids were marched to death.”
Zarif replied with a single tweet: “Serious diplomacy, not macho personal smear, is what we need. Congrats on Ur new born. May U and Ur family enjoy him in peace.”
Cotton is the first person in almost a decade to become a first-time parent in the Senate. Thirteen months after their wedding, Anna Peckham Cotton gave birth on April 27 to their son Gabriel. The timetable is another reminder of how the senator is living at an intensely fast and disciplined pace. After earning undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard and clerking on a federal appeals court, he joined the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan as an officer in the 101st Airborne Division. He started running for Congress two years after coming home.
The most important example of his hyper-accelerated approach, however, remains his decision after just two months in this office to inject himself into the middle of globally consequential U.S. diplomatic negotiations.
The letter he got 46 other Republican senators to sign, warning the Iranian government not to trust President Barack Obama in the nuclear talks, may be the biggest congressional insertion in three decades into the global affairs authority claimed by the executive. (The last of similar import was a 1987 effort to broker a peace deal between the communist Nicaraguan government and the democratic rebels. It was led not by a freshman but by a speaker of the House, Jim Wright, who died last week .)
Obama, Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are only the most recent in long list of senators who emphasized cultivating a national following as soon as they took office. All were fully aware that pursuing so much immediate attention outside the Senate could limit options for long-term success and happiness within it.
Cotton hasn’t joined the others in running for president, and he’s demurred when asked about his interest in being picked for vice president next year. But give him time.
After all, he doesn’t even move out of temporary freshman quarters and into his regular Senate office (Paul’s old suite on the first floor of Russell) until the beginning of June.
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