WASHINGTON — Nebraska’s two U.S. senators have plenty in common as first-term Republicans who ran for office touting their conservative credentials.
Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse both criticize the health care law, support federal spending cuts and denounce burdensome regulations.
But as they carve out their political identities in the Senate, they’re taking strikingly different approaches to the way they do their jobs.
In her first three years, Fischer has embraced the nuts and bolts of legislating: introducing bills, hammering out details of major legislation and helping it reach the president’s desk.
Sasse has offered fewer bills and often votes against compromise legislation that Fischer supports. In his first year, he has focused more on Congress’ oversight role and has tried to influence the national debate through sharply worded floor speeches, dramatic online videos and opposition to bills and nominees — even when he’s in a minority of one.
The two senators also offer widely differing assessments of the institution in which they serve.
Fischer boasts that the Senate is finally working.
Sasse derides it as dominated by phony processes and vacuous debate.
“It’s like they look at the same institution and see something completely different,” said John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Consider the picture of Capitol Hill each painted when addressing a chamber of commerce delegation from Omaha back in September.
“Nebraskans are an optimistic people, and we want to see work done,” Fischer told the group of several dozen business executives and local officials. “My message has been this year that work is getting done.”
Fischer ticked through a growing list of significant bipartisan Senate measures: the so-called “Doc Fix” that addressed a recurring problem with Medicare reimbursement rates, the first long-term highway bill in a decade and an overhaul of the much-criticized federal education package known as No Child Left Behind.
Each measure involved a policy issue that lawmakers had failed to resolve for years, instead passing temporary patch after temporary patch or simply talking about the situation without any action. Now, Fischer said, Congress was accomplishing something.
But Sasse had a much different take.
“This place, the institution of Congress, is a stunningly broken place,” he told the Nebraskans. “I mean really breathtaking.”
Sasse opposed each of those measures Fischer bragged about.
The Medicare “Doc Fix,” Sasse said, was just smoke-and-mirrors accounting that will add to the debt without addressing underlying problems. The highway bill’s financing methods were questionable, he said, and the education measure didn’t go far enough.
There’s plenty of precedent for a state’s two senators to choose different paths. Former Sen. Ben Nelson was the moderate Democrat always pushing for a compromise on major issues such as tax cuts, judicial nominations and the economic stimulus package. His colleague for many years was former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a maverick Republican focused on foreign policy, whose critiques of fellow Republicans earned him constant media attention.
While Sasse and Fischer are blazing their own trails, there has been no sniping between them, at least not in public. Sasse regularly invokes a wish to show deference to his senior colleague. Fischer has said the two work together well.
Despite their similarly rookie status, the two Cornhusker conservatives entered the Senate with much different backgrounds.
Fischer, who was elected in 2012, is a former state senator who relishes the legislative process. Since taking office, she has helped craft bills dealing with national defense and infrastructure — areas where she serves on the key committees.
She has been a member of the Senate negotiating teams responsible for working through differences with the House versions of those bills. She was almost giddy as the highway bill reached the finish line last year.
“I love being a legislator, so this is fun,” Fischer said at the time.
She serves on the Senate GOP leadership team, albeit in a relatively low-level position, and Republican leaders tap her at times to speak at their weekly press conferences where they lay out the party’s agenda for reporters.
Sasse, elected in 2014, had worked in the administration of former President George W. Bush and as a turn-around specialist — including jobs as a business consultant and as president of once-struggling Midland University in Fremont. He cites that experience often in discussing Congress.
“I’ve done 26 crisis and turnaround projects in the last 21 years,” he told that chamber group. “I’ve gone into lots and lots of broken places. The one thing that is almost always true about a broken place is that they know that it’s broken but they don’t agree on why.”
His takedown of Congress before the chamber group was a preview of his first speech on the floor of the Senate, which he delivered after spending much of the year keeping a low profile.
When he finally addressed the body in November, however, he had lots to say. He took both Republicans and Democrats to task, telling fellow senators that “the people despise us all.”
In that speech, Sasse called for more authentic debate on the Senate floor.
Since that first speech, he has waded deeper into the public debate. He visited the site of the San Bernardino shootings, where he recorded a video critical of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. He previously recorded a video in front of the old Iranian Embassy in which he was highly critical of a nuclear agreement with Iran.
He has taken shots at GOP presidential contender Donald Trump, referring to him as a “megalomaniacal strongman,” even as he blamed Trump’s political rise on a lack of leadership from Obama and other national politicians.
He blocked all nominees to the Department of Health and Human Services until that department coughed up more information about the failure of a dozen health insurance co-ops across the country.
The HHS stand-off reflects an emphasis Sasse has placed on Congress’ oversight role. He has dug into the co-op failures, federal data breaches and transportation security lapses.
He also doesn’t mind voting in a small minority to make a point about a particular bill or nominee.
For example, he was the only senator to vote against Peter Neffenger as the new head of TSA. The vote had nothing to do with Neffenger, who Sasse described as impressive. Rather, he wanted to highlight that simply putting a new person in charge would not fix all of the agency’s problems.
Sasse’s relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., got off to a rocky start when then-candidate Sasse criticized his leadership in a video. That was followed by a reportedly tense meeting.
But it appears they have patched up their differences. McConnell praised Sasse’s maiden speech on the floor.
Fischer’s rosier attitude about the Senate today could be colored by her experience in the minority during her first two years in Washington. During that time, she frequently expressed frustration that she wasn’t able to work on legislation because of the gridlock, which she blamed on then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his resistance to allowing Republican amendments.
Being able to actually craft legislation that reaches the president’s desk represents a big change.
In 2015 alone, Fischer introduced 22 bills and co-sponsored 104. Sasse, on the other hand, introduced four bills and co-sponsored 27.
“She understands how it works and how to get things done,” said Jennifer Duffy, who watches the Senate as a political handicapper with the Cook Political Report.
Duffy said Sasse, 99th in seniority, is still finding his way.
“He seems frustrated by the place,” she said. “But that’s a big club in Congress.”