Kavanaugh compromise: Chris Coons, Republican whisperer, is 'in the middle of everything'
WASHINGTON – Democratic Sen. Chris Coons once dodged elephants in Mozambique with GOP Sen. Jeff Flake. He lunched with Ivanka Trump. And he helped pass legislation Wednesday by partnering with GOP Sen. Bob Corker and the ultra-conservative Rep. Ted Yoho, a member of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus.
Amid the partisan grandstanding and noise on Capitol Hill, Coons' wonky, soft-spoken approach is unusual – and he seems to have colleagues' ear.
That's why it’s no surprise to those who know Coons that he was in the middle of the Senate’s singular bipartisan moment during the spectacle that has been Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing.
Progressives want him to take a harder line with Republicans. But Coons' history of bipartisanship allowed him to strike an agreement with Flake on the Senate Judiciary Committee, leading to an FBI investigation of sexual misconduct complaints against Kavanaugh from high school and college. Coons got an investigation Democrats wanted; Flake got a weeklong limitation. Kavanaugh denies all allegations.
“Ever since I’ve known Chris he’s always been in the middle of everything,” said his friend, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who serves with him on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on Africa.
Coons, a Delaware Democrat, is a one-time college Republican who has made a point of building relationships across the aisle, through travel, prayer meetings and work on legislation.
“We’ve been through a lot,” Flake, R-Ariz., said, describing the trust he’s developed with Coons, while speaking with him at a forum on Monday.
Along with serving on Judiciary, the two have traveled together as members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on Africa, which led to their close call in an open-back Jeep with the charging elephants.
“That’s how compromises are possible. And there’s less and less of that going on," Flake said.
The two senators may have had different takes on the FBI report on Thursday, but Coons said he can live with that.
“Senators are now in a better position to reach conclusions than they were a week ago," Coons told reporters. "And I think we demonstrated that through a relationship built on travel and bipartisanship and legislating, you could accomplish at least that much.”
There’s a reason why Coons seems to speak Republican: “I would say it’s my mother tongue,” he joked during an interview in his office with USA TODAY.
Coons once described himself, during his early years at Amherst College, as “sort of an Alex P. Keaton,” the fictional, Ronald Reagan-loving teenager from the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties.”
“George Will was one of my heroes when I was an undergraduate,” he said.
His political conversion came after he grew disillusioned with U.S. policy in South Africa and was exposed to extreme poverty while studying in Kenya. Within a year of founding a college Republican group, he was arguing the Democratic side in a debate and setting a new life course.
After Amherst, Coons volunteered for relief efforts in South Africa and later advocated for the homeless while at Yale University, where he graduated in 1992 with both ethics and law degrees.
As an outlet, Coons tried his hand at stand-up comedy in New York, but only once.
Isakson said that’s just as well.
“I’m glad he didn’t choose that career,” Isakson said. “He’d probably be pretty hungry right now. I don’t say that as a cut – he’s to a higher calling.”
Coons got to know Isakson through committee work, prayer breakfasts and travel to Africa. Both from poultry-producing states, they worked together to fight South African duties on U.S. chicken exports.
Earlier this year, Coons made headlines when he changed his committee vote from “no” to “present” on then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s nomination for secretary of State. He did that to spare Isakson from having to rush back from a close friend’s funeral services to vote in favor.
The pairing didn’t change the final outcome of the committee vote and Coons opposed Pompeo on the Senate floor. But the kind gesture toward Isakson left Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praising Coons’ “statesmanship” – and fighting back tears.
“He came here to make a difference, he wants to solve problems,” Corker said of Coons on Tuesday. Their measure to promote economic growth in developing countries is now headed to President Donald Trump for his signature after passing the Senate Wednesday as part of a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization. “So, yes, many Republicans seek after him when they want to work on a bill they want to see go into law.”
The Corker-Coons measure was drafted in close consultation with the White House – including adviser Ivanka Trump. A White House official confirmed that she and Coons have met multiple times to discuss bipartisan legislation. Coons also co-sponsored a bill she is promoting to help women entrepreneurs in emerging markets.
“I am embarrassed. I’m overdue to respond to her last email,” Coons said.
Coons was first elected in 2010 to fill the Senate seat Vice President Joe Biden held for 36 years. His state has long valued bipartisanship. Delaware politicians have a tradition of riding together in a parade and burying a hatchet in a box of sand after an election.
After his Sept. 28 compromise with Flake, he returned home to a standing ovation at a previously scheduled town hall meeting, and some criticism. A woman who identified herself as former U.S. attorney told him she didn’t believe an investigation could be done in one week.
“The alternative to having one week was no week,” he replied.
Progressives have attacked Coons’ moderate approach. He was the first senator the Progressive Change Campaign Committee targeted last year with a barrage calls to his office when they believed he didn’t take a tough enough stance against then-Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch during a series of media interviews.
"There is zero appetite among the public for weakness from Democratic politicians,” said Stephanie Taylor, PCCC co-founder, said then.
Coons ultimately opposed Gorsuch’s confirmation. He has already said he will oppose Kavanaugh.
Coons has grown increasingly critical of his party’s leftward shift, arguing that an ultra-liberal agenda will damage Democrats’ electoral prospects. At a centrist strategy session in July, he dismissed ideas such as free college and guaranteed jobs for all as “wild-eyed” proposals.
Coons voted with the majority of his party, against a majority of Republicans, 91 percent of the time last year, according to a CQ vote study. Even so, he was still among the senators who voted most often against his party on these votes.
To those who say he should push back harder against Republicans, Coons asks, “to what end?”
Coons said his votes, speeches and actions reflect core Democratic principles, but it can’t be the case that he’ll never work with Republicans or compliment Trump when he gets something right.
“If that’s the rule, then we’ll never get anything done,” he said.
Coons is now looking ahead to a Senate without Flake and Corker, who are retiring, and without the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. When he returned home from McCain’s funeral in August, he said he made a point of telling three new Republican senators that he wants to get to know them, visit their states, worship with them, and find a way to legislate with them.
“This place only works if we actually know each other,” Coons said he told them. “I’m hoping some of those efforts will bear some fruit.”
Contributing: Christina Jedra, The News Journal, and Deirdre Shesgreen, USA TODAY.