Now In The Senate, Georgia’s Perdue Still Aims To Be Outsider

WASHINGTON — David Perdue has an idea for his forthcoming maiden speech in the U.S. Senate: Bring back the jean jacket.

Perdue and his jacket formed a ubiquitous image on Georgia television screens last year, as he stood in a field staring off toward the horizon, branded as “The Outsider.” Why would the message change after winning the election?

“I can’t get any support from these guys,” Perdue said of his staff.

“I don’t know that it fits the decorum of the Senate, but maybe for a day,” communications director Megan Whittemore said.

“Hey, anything to break up the mood, right?” Perdue added.

Still striving to be the outsider

Jean jacket or no, the Republican Perdue continues to position himself as an outsider, even as he settles in to the Senate. Working out of a cramped three-room basement freshman office for the next few months, Perdue is vocal about his frustrations but optimistic that he can carve out a role tackling the fiscal issues he holds dear and priorities important to the state.

It bothered Perdue that it took the Senate 2 1/2 weeks and a barrage of amendments to pass a Keystone XL pipeline bill that “should have been a no-brainer.” But he enjoys his Friday afternoons presiding over a mostly empty Senate, listening to the speeches from senators from both parties. To Perdue’s surprise, “there’s a lot of content in those speeches” to learn from.

Among the early bonds he has formed is with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who knew Perdue when the freshman was CEO of Nashville-based Dollar General. Corker, who built a large construction company, also has a business background.

Corker said Perdue has managed better than he did in his own 2007 debut.

“I don’t know where he developed this knowledge, but he understands more fully the inner workings of the Senate when he came in,” Corker said. “He gets the issues. He’s a quick study. He also gets how things need to operate.”

An opportunity to be a go-to

Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, asked Perdue to be chairman of a subcommittee overseeing the State Department and other related agencies.

Corker intends to reauthorize the State Department for the first time since 2002. That means reviewing and revising congressional direction for how the department is run, action that will run through Perdue’s subcommittee.

“Once he goes through this process, probably more than anybody in the U.S. Senate, he will know those inner workings (at the State Department) in a firsthand way,” Corker said. “That will make him the go-to.”

Perdue would love to be a go-to on the federal budget, as fiscal matters were his top priority throughout the campaign, but there are plenty of Republicans who feel the same way. Perdue scored a seat on the Budget Committee and is eager to dig in.

Seeking a budget surplus

During Perdue’s first hearing, Budget Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., recognized the freshman to question a witness.

“I want to welcome our newest senator to the committee and thank him for all the work that he’s done in the private sector at balancing budgets,” Enzi said.

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman, but I’d like to correct you on one thing,” Perdue replied. “If I had ever balanced the budget, I would have been fired every single time. We had to produce a few more dollars on the positive side than the negative side.”

A few seats away, the moment made Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a fellow CEO-turned-senator, light up.

“People who served here too long or people who didn’t serve in the private sector, they get an attitude if we can keep our deficit to 3 percent of (gross domestic product) or 4 percent of GDP, that’s OK,” Johnson said in an interview. “That’s not the attitude David and I have, which is not just to balance the budget but have a surplus.”

Perdue, who got excited to snag a print copy of the president’s fiscal 2015 budget request, said he is eager to craft a budget that reaches a surplus within the next decade.

Some tough calls

Though Perdue missed out on the Armed Services Committee — an early setback that broke Georgia’s four-decade streak on the committee — he did get on Agriculture, as he hoped. There, Perdue will be chairman of the Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources, where he will scrutinize the Environmental Protection Agency.

On the floor, there has been a flurry of votes on amendments related to the Keystone pipeline. In one case, Perdue and fellow Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson changed their votes on an amendment that would have reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

They supported it at first but flipped to no after a discussion with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Perdue said the vote switch, first reported by Politico, came after McConnell told them that passing the amendment could complicate resolving the Keystone bill with the House version — delaying the bill’s arrival on the president’s desk. In addition, Perdue said, he was always concerned with approving the fund permanently without first getting the budget under control.

Another tricky early decision involved President Barack Obama’s nominee for attorney general, Loretta Lynch. Perdue caused a minor stir among conservative activists by speaking kindly of Lynch after her confirmation hearing last month before Perdue and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“There was a lot of talk out there about whether he was standing with the attorney general,” said Jeanne Seaver of the Savannah Tea Party early this week. Seaver added, given Lynch’s stated backing of Obama’s immigration actions: “I feel confident that I don’t think that (Perdue) will support Lynch.”

Eventually, Perdue announced he would oppose Lynch, after reviewing her testimony, citing her position on Obama’s “amnesty.”

Staying on course

Isakson, who is running for a third Senate term next year, said Perdue has taken the right path so far, from the staff he’s hired — a mix of campaign and Washington veterans — to the bills he co-sponsors.

“One of the things I admire about what he’s doing is he’s keeping every single one of his campaign promises in things he’s sponsored, things he’s doing,” Isakson said.

Among those items are instituting a national sales tax to replace income and payroll taxes and limiting U.S. senators to two terms. Both are not much more popular than denim on the Senate floor, but that doesn’t bother Perdue.

“I ran as an outsider,” Perdue said. “I’m going to do this job as an outsider. I didn’t come here to just govern. I came here to make a difference and try to change the direction of our country.”

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