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Bob Casey, a low-key senator, gets feisty — including emojis and pointed Tweets

Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey’s reputation is so low-key, an old political joke has it, that he could get arrested for loitering at his own press conference.

These days, though, the citation would more likely be for creating a disturbance. And some Democratic allies are excited about the shift.

In recent weeks, Mr. Casey has blasted some of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees. He’s promised to fight the White House “every step of the way” on potential cuts to government health programs. And when Mr. Trump abruptly imposed limits on immigration from several majority-Muslim countries last month, Mr. Casey appeared at the Philadelphia International Airport, decrying the policy and the confusion it created.

“He’s been quite vocal — especially for Bob Casey,” said Christopher Borick, a Muhlenberg College pollster. “He’s put himself out there more than his history would suggest.”

“I’m fortunate enough to have a job where you can constantly learn and talk about issues, and focus where your constituents expect you to focus,” Mr. Casey said in an interview.

The Senate confirmation of cabinet appointments, he said, “has been frustrating. You are often asking questions of people who don’t want to answer, or who are giving answers contrary to fact, or to what’s on the public record.”

His increasing assertiveness hasn’t been lost on activists, whose support could prove crucial for Mr. Casey’s re-election in 2018.

“People are really noticing that he is more visible,” said Erin Kramer, head of advocacy group One Pennsylvania. “It’s obvious that there’s something happening.”

At times, Mr. Casey almost seems to be trolling Republicans. On Wednesday, when Mr. Trump complained on Twitter that his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line “has been treated so unfairly by Nordstrom,” Mr. Casey retweeted the message — and pointedly cc’ed it to the Office of Government Ethics. The same day, he deployed a “thinking face” emoji to register concern that a male Senator had read a letter — Coretta Scott King’s criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ voting rights-record — that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced for reading the night before.

(Mr. Casey works up his tweets in consultation with staff, and according to his office, his input includes emoji selection.)

Some of Mr. Casey’s sharpest criticisms have been directed at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a strident advocate for private schooling who lacked public-school experience. Ms. DeVos was confirmed this week, thanks to an unprecedented tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.

“It was a combination of her not being prepared for the job and having not much commitment to public education,” said Mr. Casey, who said his office received 100,000 calls and letters about the appointment.

[Read more: Pittsburgh students protest DeVos confirmation; press Toomey on vote]

Given that Mr. Trump won Pennsylvania, albeit narrowly, Mr. Casey’s forceful response to the new administration may seem surprising. But nationally, Democratic leaders have been surprised, and at times challenged, by widespread protests since Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

“Democrats desperately don’t want to forget about the base,” said Mr. Borick. “You can help yourself by fighting [on] issues that resonate with that base.”

Conservatives are already trying to use those allies against Mr. Casey.

The conservative advocacy group Freedom Partners, for example, is trying to pressure Mr. Casey not to filibuster the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch. It notes that last year he called for Republicans to “do their job” and give Barack Obama’s previous nominee for the seat, Merrick Garland, “a fair hearing and a timely vote.”

Sen. Bob Casey greets Judge Merrick Garland in March at Mr. Casey’s office on Capitol Hill. (Zach Gibson/The New York Times)


In a statement, Freedom Partners asked whether Democrats would “practice what they preach … or will they cave to the extreme left?”

Mr. Casey brushed aside such objections. “Merrick Garland was vetoed before we knew there was a Merrick Garland,” he said, noting Republicans refused even to hold a hearing on him. “Judge Gorsuch will get a hearing. We’re already far ahead” of the Republican position.

Mr. Casey has approved some Trump appointments, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

And as a labor-friendly Democrat, he has long opposed the same trade deals Mr. Trump campaigned against. In 2015, for example, he opposed “fast-track” authority to give Mr. Obama more latitude to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership. When Mr. Trump withdrew from that pact, Mr. Casey issued a statement calling on “Congressional Republicans, who have supported these agreements over many years, to work with President Trump and those of us who have long opposed these bad trade deals.”

Mr. Casey also voted against one Trump-supported initiative — allowing Americans to purchase prescription drugs from Canada — that was popular with some on the left.

Mr. Casey cited a lack of quality control measures. While skeptics cite a notable absence of Canadians killed by slipshod medication, “I don’t think you have to demonstrate that people are being harmed in Canada to want basic safety provisions,” said Mr. Casey.

He added he was working with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on a replacement measure that “will be better than what was proposed.” A bill, he said, will be unveiled “in weeks, not months.”

[Read more: Some lawmakers have been tough to contact in recent days]

Like his father, the late Gov. Robert P. Casey, Mr. Casey opposes abortion. But Sari Stevens, the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, said he’d been an ally in trying to protect federal funding for non-abortion women’s health services. (Government funding for abortion itself has long been barred.)

Mr. Casey has “become more comfortable in distinguishing the women’s health work we do” from abortion, said Ms. Stevens. When Republicans pledged to defund Planned Parenthood in January, “He was out within 24 hours talking about it. He’s on the right side of that fight.”

Mr. Casey professes not to worry about how his positions may affect his re-election. “I leave it to a political scientist to analyze how it affects 2018. … I just have to do my job as I see it.”

Mr. Trump’s own popularity could be ephemeral, he observed: “If you campaign saying, ‘I’m not going to touch Medicare and Social Security’ and you appoint Tom Price [to head Health and Human Services] whose position is diametrically opposed from you, there’s some risk for the president.”

When Mr. Casey ran for reelection in 2012, “his campaign tack was to keep the race boring,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Republican political consultant. But now, said Mr. Nicholas, “Pennsylvania Democrats are rocked to their core that Trump won the state.”

A marked change in style carries risks, Mr. Nicholas added. “Will people say, ‘What happened to Bob Casey?’ Or will they say, ‘Look at what happened to Bob Casey!’ I think it’s too soon to know.”

Chris Potter: cpotter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.