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March 4, 2015

Posts in "Congressional Clout"

January 15, 2015

Democrat Has Trick Up His Sleeve to Battle Irrelevance

The debut of Pocan Magic Mondays. (Screenshot)

The debut of Pocan Magic Mondays. (Screenshot)

“We got magic to do, just for you, we got foibles and fables to portray as we go along our way.”

Lyrics from the opening song of the musical “Pippin” are as good a place as any to begin the story of a backbench junior Democrat with one of the more novel approaches to making his mark in the House. Full story

January 13, 2015

Ryan’s Rationale for Bypassing 2016

House Chamber

Ryan, left, has a word with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Jan. 6, before the 114th Congress was sworn in on the House floor. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The dead giveaway, if it wasn’t a total head fake, was when Paul D. Ryan showed up to begin his ninth term in the House sporting a blossoming beard.

No one so hirsute has been elected president, or even run a sustained national campaign, since Benjamin Harrison back in 1888 — so obviously the facial hair was the clearest sign yet the Wisconsin Republican was taking a pass on 2016. Unless he was signaling the opposite: That he was getting ready to emulate James A. Garfield, another in the string of bearded 19th century presidents and the only sitting House member ever sent to the White House. Full story

Centrist Democrats on McConnell’s List of Potential Collaborators

McCaskill could end up being one of the Centrist 7 McConnell turns to when he needs Democratic help. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

McCaskill, front, could end up being one of the “centrist seven” McConnell turns to if and when he needs some Democratic help. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s safe now to forget about the “red state four,” the quartet of Democrats whose defeats in conservative-leaning states last year assured the Senate GOP takeover. And the inevitable creation of the next “gang of six” (or eight, or 12, or whatever) is at least one legislative impasse in the future.

For now, the grouping of senators deserving the most attention is the “centrist seven,” the cluster of Democrats who stand out as the likeliest to get behind aspects of the new Republican majority’s legislative program. And they may be joined once in a while by as many as five others in their party who’ve shown flashes of moderation in the recent past, yielding a universe of potential aisle-crossers who could be dubbed the “dispositive dozen” of the 114th Congress. Full story

January 12, 2015

Democratic Committee Assignments Less Than a Zero-Sum Game

Pelosi is in a tough spot when it comes to making committee assignments for the 114th Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Pelosi is making committee assignments for the 114th Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House Democrats undeniably remain the fourth and smallest wheel in the congressional machine. And they’re still struggling to apply enough internal political grease to get their pieces of the legislative engine out of neutral.

The party now has its smallest share of House seats in almost nine decades — just 188, or 43 percent. In reality, its disadvantage is even more pronounced. That’s because Republicans have stuck with the custom that the party in control claims more than its fair share of the seats on committees, where the bulk of the chamber’s policy battles are effectively won or lost. Full story

December 11, 2014

Congress’ Closing Chaos, as Viewed in the Senate Subway

The Senate subways give a true sense of the vibe on Capitol Hill as the lame-duck session ends. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate subways can offer a true sense of the vibe on Capitol Hill as the lame-duck session comes to an end. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

For a sense of what this climactic week for the 113th Congress feels like, a well-timed visit to the Capitol’s main subway platform will do the trick.

On a quiet day, the station tucked beneath the Senate’s ceremonial steps is about as antiseptic as it gets, the dull white walls and fluorescent lighting more reminiscent of a mid-century hospital than one of the true “corridors of power” in the most powerful government on Earth. Full story

December 1, 2014

The Opaque World of Committee Assignments

How did Young, a freshman, end up with a committee assignment? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

How did Young, a freshman-to-be, end up with a committee assignment on Appropriations? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

One of the older truisms routinely applied to politicians is, “Where you stand is where you sit.” In other words, their ideology flows clearly from their life experience. And on Capitol Hill, there is this corollary: “Where you sit is what you do.”

That neatly summarizes the importance of committee assignments in the lives of so many lawmakers. And it helps explain why two dozen favored members of the next Congress got to breathe big sighs of relief before Thanksgiving, while all the others are returning for the rest of the lame-duck session to confront complex battles for the remaining placements.

The jockeying and suspense will be especially acute in the House. Its 435 seats make specialization something close to a job requirement, so committee membership takes on outsize importance in driving each member’s legislative priorities and perceived areas of expertise — and in many cases fundraising focus as well. That helps explain why campaigning for a good assignment is an essential focus during every newly elected member’s two-month transition to office, and why the party leaders act as the gatekeepers of membership.

It’s a very different situation in the Senate. Because of statewide constituencies, each senator has a vested interest in becoming familiar with several different areas of public policy. With almost 400 committee seats but only 100 people to fill them, each senator is guaranteed a spot on at least one of the most powerful panels. And because of the seniority system’s continued sway over the institution, the veterans generally get the pick of the litter and the newcomers are left to choose from the best of the rest.

All that, plus the uncertainty of the runoff in Louisiana, means returning senators won’t know for sure about openings on the so-called A committees until the second week in December, with freshmen left waiting to start assessing targets of opportunity.

In the House, the biggest winners have already been announced. Nine Republicans first elected in 2010 and nine from the Class of 2012 (including a pair of subsequent special-election winners) have been tapped for the committees with the most powerful legislative jurisdictions, which therefore provide their membership with the most robust flows of campaign cash. That’s Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services and Ways and Means. Another three seats on the banking panel and two on the spending panel were awarded to incoming freshmen. Full story

November 17, 2014

This Democrat Could Be the McConnell Whisperer

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Biden: The McConnell whisperer? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The next two years may be when Joe gets his last, best chance to help run the show.

Joseph R. Biden Jr. is preparing to celebrate his 72nd birthday next week and has been sending really mixed signals about where he’d like to take his career in 2016. But regardless of whether he decides to launch his third uphill campaign for president, the 47th vice president of the United States is positioned by the force of his experience, personality and circumstance to be among the indispensable players of the 114th Congress.

Several scenarios in the midterm elections could have generated a 50-50 partisan split in the Senate, meaning Biden would have quite literally been trapped at the Capitol next year so he could be counted on to cast tie-breaking votes for his fellow Democrats on a potentially daily basis. (It’s a vice-presidential power he’s never exercised after almost six years on the job; his predecessor Dick Cheney provided the decisive vote for the Republicans eight times in the previous decade.)

Now that Republicans are certain of holding at least 53 (and possibly 54) seats come January, Biden’s telegenic services as presiding officer and deadlock-breaker might never be required. Instead, he may end up with a big reprise of his more consequential vice-presidential role — as the legislative deal-maker-in-chief. Full story

September 18, 2014

Conservatives Pick Mike Lee as His Ambitious Pals Eye 2016

Lee will lead the Senate Steering Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Lee will lead the Senate Steering Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The caucus of the most conservative senators has chosen a new leader. It’s not either of the Republicans who will probably come to mind first — but he may well be the man who’s going to push the Senate hardest to the right over the long term.

Mike Lee of Utah will take over as chairman of the Senate Steering Committee in January. That means he’ll be among the most influential conservatives at the Capitol in the run-up to the next presidential election. If his side wins at least six of the seats it’s after this fall, Lee will be positioned to play a central role in assembling and advancing the legislative agenda of a newly Republican Congress.

For at least a few months into next year, Lee looks destined to remain routinely overshadowed by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, his partners in the informal triumvirate of libertarian-minded junior senators with monosyllabic names.

For the past couple of years, those two have been far more intentional than Lee about generating publicity for their confrontationally conservative crusades. Their dedication to self-promotion will only intensify if they keep moving toward presidential bids, which means the Senate floor in early 2015 could become the principal venue where the Kentuckian and the Texan test potential planks for their national platforms.

But that approach only works for so long, as others who have sought to move from the Capitol straight to the White House have learned. For one thing, it’s difficult for the Senate floor to be a campaign soundstage for more than one member at a time, especially after the inevitable rivalries among the nationally ambitious come into the open. For another, lawmakers who gain some early traction in the fundraising and Beltway-attention-getting stages of the process soon enough realize they have to spend much less time on the Hill and more time on the hustings.

This is why Lee now seems well-positioned to fill an impending power vacuum.

Full story

July 30, 2014

The Almost Invisible Final Days of a Once-Forceful Leader

Cantor may not actually exit for another few months, but he's slowly saying goodbye. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

 (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Eric Cantor’s slow fade toward the exits of the House majority leader’s office is one day from its official completion. But as a practical matter he’s been almost invisible for several weeks.

And at the Capitol, there are no outward signs that one of the most important congressional jobs is changing hands after 43 months — and one stunning primary outcome in central Virginia.

The wet blanket of quiet is another reminder of how Congress, as much as any other prominent American institution, makes quick work of people who lose their clout. “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business,” is one of the institution’s words-to-live-by aphorisms. Another is, “You may be a rooster today, but you’ll be a feather duster soon enough.”

Cantor’s colleagues say they decided to forgo any public ceremony to mark the end of his time as the No. 2 Republican, official as of midnight Thursday. Rather than a round of speeches now — which might come off as funereal so close to his involuntary separation from power — an organized tribute on the House floor will be arranged toward the conclusion of the lame-duck session, when Cantor’s 14-year congressional career will be at its end.

But Republican lawmakers won’t wait until December for their invitation-only wake. The incoming majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, is hosting a party for Cantor on Wednesday night at the Capitol Hill Club. On the last evening before lawmakers take off for five weeks, the GOP’s fusty official hangout should be packed with get-away energy. (McCarthy picked the much hipper Blue Jacket at the Navy Yard for the bash he tossed Tuesday night honoring the biggest loser in the post-Cantor leadership shuffle, outgoing chief deputy whip Peter Roskam of Illinois.)

As an interim eulogy staffers assembled a schmaltzy, if brief at just 126 seconds, video about Cantor’s time as majority leader. Shown at Tuesday’s weekly meeting of the House Republican Conference and later distributed to congressional reporters, the highlight reel was long on Cantor’s efforts to soften the rough edges of his fractured caucus. It offered a reminder of his pride in being the only Jewish Republican in Congress. But, predictably, the tape didn’t even hint at his rocky passages as a legislative strategist, his fundraising prowess or his complex relationship with Speaker John A. Boehner. Full story

July 8, 2014

Cuban Conspiracy Aside, Menendez Troubles Remain

Menendez can breathe a sigh of relief — for the moment. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Menendez can breathe a sigh of relief — for the moment. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In the short term, anyway, the tide of good news seems to have turned in favor of Robert Menendez.

Officials in his old New Jersey congressional district named an elementary school for the Senate Foreign Relations chairman a few months ago. Then the Democrat celebrated his 60th birthday by announcing his engagement (in the Rotunda) to Alicia Mucci, a 45-year-old widowed constituent he’d met at a fundraiser.

But the best publicity Menendez has enjoyed all year arrived Monday, when the Washington Post reported on evidence the Cuban government may have fabricated and planted the lurid story that has smudged the senator’s reputation since just before his 2012 re-election bid. Menendez crowed to CNN Tuesday that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the regime in Havana had concocted the smear he had hired several underage Dominican prostitutes — because, he said, it “would do anything it can to stop me.”

What all the righteous indignation and melodramatic skullduggery obscures, however, is that Menendez continues to face questions about behavior that’s far more legally and politically problematic than the already substantially discredited tales about his cavorting at sex parties in the Caribbean.

For nearly two years, the Justice Department has been investigating whether Menendez illegally used his congressional office to benefit the business interests of his most generous donors, particularly Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. The Senate Ethics Committee appears to have put its similar inquiry on hold in deference to the Feds.

If federal prosecutors end up alleging Menendez broke the law, that would be a much bigger deal for the already dismal ethical reputation of Congress — as well as for the Democratic Party and Latino community — than whether an antagonistic nation was able to make headway with an ambitious conspiracy to ruin an influential lawmaker.

Full story

June 25, 2014

What Cochran’s Win Means for Hill Spending

Cochran talks in May with a constituent in Olive Branch, Miss. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Cochran talks in May with a constituent in Olive Branch, Miss. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A congressional dead man walking just days ago, Thad Cochran has instead become one of the most influential players in the coming Congress. The senator who looked to become the tea party movement’s biggest scalp of 2014 is now in position to be the small government conservatives’ worst nightmare of 2015.

Cochran’s upset runoff victory has made him a totally safe bet for a seventh term, and also increased by a small notch the prospect that he and his fellow Republicans could win control of the Senate this fall. If that happens, Cochran has not only the seniority but also the vanquished victor’s clout necessary to claim the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee — where he would surely restore some of the spend-along-to-get-along spirit of bipartisan collegiality that drives insurgents on the right absolutely nuts.

Because the current limits on discretionary spending will be replaced by tightening sequester caps on domestic and military outlays for the remainder of the decade, Cochran would be legally powerless to break the bank during the four years he might be chairman. (He’d have to give up the gavel at the end of 2018, when he will turn 81, because the GOP has term limits and he ran Appropriations for two years in the past decade.)

What’s more, the ideological dynamics of the Senate Republican Conference would make it highly unwise and probably impossible for Cochran to achieve a restoration of the old-time appropriations culture, in which both sides are willing to give in on plenty so they might gain a little — and still get home on time. For starters, if there’s switch in party control, the GOP membership on Appropriations would expand next year. That means the dominant voices would belong to the younger generation of fiscal hard-liners, no longer the senior accommodationists such as Cochran. Full story

June 22, 2014

Two Powerful Old Bulls Trying for One Term Too Many?

Rangel's primary is looking similar to Cochran's runoff election. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Rangel’s primary is looking similar to Cochran’s runoff election. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Perhaps never before have the people of Harlem and Hattiesburg, the Bronx and Biloxi participated in such a similar referendum on the same day.

But that’s what is happening Tuesday, when voters in a lopsidedly liberal section of New York City, and all across reliably conservative Mississippi, will answer the same question: Has an icon of the modern Congress overstayed his welcome?

Other storylines are getting at least as much attention as Thad Cochran battles for the Republican nomination for a seventh term in the Senate and as Charles B. Rangel goes after the Democratic nomination for a 23rd term in the House. Down South, the principal narrative is about whether the tea party’s top senatorial hopeful can win the movement’s most prominent challenge to the GOP establishment. Up North, the script is framed mainly as a tale about the gains of Latinos at the expense of African-Americans as players in urban Democratic politics.

The protagonists in both those versions of the stories are state senators. A runoff triumph by Chris McDaniel, who’s turning 42 on June 28 would give him a shot at becoming an anchor tenant in the confrontational wing of the Senate GOP Conference next year. (He’d still have to win a potentially competitive race against centrist former Democratic Rep. Travis Childers.) A primary win by 59-year-old Adriano Espaillat in New York would be tantamount to his election as the first Dominican-American in Congress.

As the final weekend began for both campaigns, the consensus view was that Cochran’s hold on his seat was tenuous while Rangel was looking to survive.

Victories by either McDaniel or Espaillat would put them among the trendsetters in relatively new aspects of American public life. In that sense they are similar to the veterans they’re seeking to take out — each of whom is emblematic of a congressional evolution that started in the 1970s.

Cochran’s election as the first Republican senator from Mississippi in 100 years heralded his party’s coming takeover of the South. Rangel was in the vanguard of Congressional Black Caucus members who avoided rhetorical outrage in favor of leadership connections and deal-cutting skills to achieve tangible results for their constituents. Full story

June 12, 2014

Cantor Had No Choice but to Step Aside After Defeat

It was impossible to imagine how Eric Cantor was going to remain House majority leader longer than a few more weeks. The biggest surprise is that he’s decided to hang on to his job title, if not really the job’s duties, until the end of July.

By getting soundly defeated in his Republican primary, Cantor made history as the most prominent member ever spurned by his own party for re-election. But that defeat transformed him on Wednesday into something much more immediately consequential: The most tangibly toothless person in the congressional leadership in more than a century.

Gaining the confidence of your party is the basic prerequisite for getting into the Hill hierarchy. Knowing where your caucus wants to be ideologically, and balancing that against where it needs to be, is a central requirement for staying on the leadership team. Making sure your colleagues remain beholden to you, legislatively and politically, is essential for success in the work — which can be described in blunt political terms as the daily gaining and spending of power.

For Cantor, all of that disappeared in a matter of hours on Tuesday, when his bid for an eighth term was rejected by 56 percent of the voters who had been his political base in central Virginia.

The comparison is far from perfect, but that was the closest thing American politics has seen in a long time to a parliamentary vote of no confidence. And when a prime minister is defeated in one of those, he is duty bound to offer his resignation.

A leader would be foolhardy to do otherwise, because such elections immediately drain the loser of every ounce of political capital. Full story

June 8, 2014

What Cochran Vs. Lott Said About Today’s GOP Civil War

Cochran primary supporters in DeSoto County, Miss. before the election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Cochran primary supporters in DeSoto County, Miss. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Last week marked only the second time in his life that Thad Cochran did not win an election outright.

The previous instance was 18 years ago this month, when he was defeated for Senate majority leader by Mississippi’s other Republican senator at the time, Trent Lott. That contest foreshadowed as clearly as anything the dire political predicament Cochran finds himself in now — just two weeks from a GOP primary runoff where state Sen. Chris McDaniel seems to have most everything going his way.

The outcome will decide more than whether Cochran is denied a seventh term. His defeat would guarantee that, come 2015, the chamber would have just two members who knew life in the Senate before Ronald Reagan was president. A McDaniel victory would allow the tea party movement to portray its confrontational style of conservatism as alive and well in the top tier of American politics.

And the only primary defeat of an incumbent senator this year would bring down the curtain on a fading era at the Capitol. Cochran was already an anomaly because he never wavered from the view that being urbane and soft-spoken in public, and collegial and collaborative behind the scenes, was the surest route to institutional success and job satisfaction. But that approach, of course, has almost entirely fallen out of fashion on both sides of the aisle and on both sides of the Capitol — supplanted by a pathway in which partisan bombast and reflexive combativeness are rewarded while cordiality and thoughtfulness are ridiculed.

This shift in the congressional culture was given one of its first high-profile Senate displays in June 1996, when Bob Dole unexpectedly gave up the GOP floor leader’s job (along with his Kansas seat) to focus on his challenge to President Bill Clinton’s re-election. Full story

March 31, 2014

Camp Out, Rough Week: Michigan Delegation Facing Depleted Hill Clout

Levin is one of several powerful Michigan members retiring this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Levin lamented the retirement of his fellow Michigander, GOP Rep. Dave Camp. They both are opting against seeking re-election this fall. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It’s shaping up to be a pretty rough week for Michigan. But the blows to its biggest business and its college basketball teams may be only a foretaste of something more consequentially harmful and longer lasting.

The state’s sway at the Capitol is getting ready for a big fall.

Monday’s retirement announcement by Dave Camp, the second-most senior Republican from the state and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, added a siren to the warning signs about diminished influence.

For the past quarter-century, the Roll Call Clout Index has gauged the relative strength of every state’s delegation at the start of each Congress. Michigan has remained the eighth most populous state since 1990, but its team of lawmakers has finished as high as fourth in influence several times — and never lower than the current ranking of seventh.

Michigan’s ability to remain anywhere in the Top 10 next year is now seriously imperiled. The size of the delegation (14 House members plus the pair of senators) is not going to shrink again this decade, but downward arrows are blinking red next to all the other quantifiable factors: collective longevity and positioning for power, and influence in leadership and the committee system.

Full story

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