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October 31, 2014

Posts in "Senate"

October 15, 2014

Voter Engagement Gap Hints at GOP Turnout Edge

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Election official David Herod, right, watches early voters cast their ballots Nevada in 2010, when midterm turnout was high for the GOP. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Twenty days out, and the sum of all the polling, computer modeling and intangibles says that both Senate storylines are still possible. The headline defining the midterm elections could end up being written by a few thousand people scattered west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies — voters who may not decide until the afternoon of Nov. 4 whether to head to the local library or school cafeteria to cast the decisive ballots.

The Democrats can still retain their majority by holding their losses to five seats — the number of turnovers currently projected by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call race ratings. But the GOP can still realize a decisive takeover; if all our current Tossup races end up falling to the Republicans, their net gain would be eight seats, two more than the six they need to reclaim control.

Turnout will drive the outcome. And polling in the past couple of weeks has sent strong signals that Republicans are more motivated to get to the polls and so will show up in potentially dispositive numbers.

Democratic voters are less interested in the elections than Republicans, according to survey results released over the weekend by the Wall Street Journal, NBC News and the Annenberg Public Policy Center. The poll found that while all registered voters prefer a Democratic Congress by a narrow 48 percent to 43 percent, the number is more than reversed when it comes to the voters who say they’re very interested in the elections: 51 percent are hoping for a GOP sweep, while just 44 percent are rooting for the Democrats.

Similar, albeit more detailed, numbers were reported a week ago by Gallup. It found that, overall, voters have thought less about the elections, are less motivated to vote and are less enthusiastic about their choices than in the previous two midterms. But the Republican numbers on all three fronts are much better than for the Democrats: 12 points higher on attention paid to the campaign, 19 points higher on motivation to vote and 18 points higher on excitement about voting. “As a result, even if overall turnout is depressed compared with prior years, Republicans appear poised to turn out in greater numbers than Democrats,” Gallup concluded.

The Democrats are keenly aware of this voter engagement gap, which the pollsters say is about what it was before the GOP won control of the House in 2010 — then, just as now, voters were casting ballots to show their dissatisfaction with the job performances of both Congress and President Barack Obama. Full story

October 7, 2014

The Hillary Clinton 2014 Campaign Tour: Helping Democratic Women, One Swing State at a Time

455467610 445x269 The Hillary Clinton 2014 Campaign Tour: Helping Democratic Women, One Swing State at a Time

The Clintons stump with retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin at the 37th Harkin Steak Fry in Iowa. (Steve Pope/Getty Images News File Photo)

They are matches made in Democratic political consultant heaven: More than a dozen statewide candidates whose fortunes could turn on turnout by women, each paired with the woman getting ready to run again toward what she’s dubbed “that highest, hardest glass ceiling in American politics.”

In the final four weeks before an election, there’s really only one surefire way to generate “positive-earned media,” the euphemism for getting the campaign’s message on the local news for free and without much filter. That’s to import someone like-minded from the political A-list to talk up the candidate at a rally or photogenic factory tour. And about the best way into the pockets of the local donors who haven’t “maxed out” yet is to persuade that same big surrogate to stick around for a fundraiser after the TV crews have left the scene.

In the pantheon of Democratic celebrities, of course, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton stand apart, and the former president generated ample attention Monday when he started two days of barnstorming in his native Arkansas with a rally for Sen. Mark Pryor, who’s now a slight underdog for a third term, and gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross, the former congressman.

But while Bill Clinton is out to remind the folks back home of their past fondness for white-guy Democratic moderates, it’s Hillary Clinton who is all-but-officially out to capture the party’s future — which is what’s making her the biggest “get” of all this fall.

All of a sudden, she is hardly being stingy with her time. After steering almost entirely clear of the public campaign trail in the six years since her first run for president, the former secretary of State has now mapped an October that includes stumping or fundraising in a dozen states. Half have been intensely contested in recent national elections and several are also pivotal players in the Democratic nominating process. She’s going to put herself out there to try to influence the outcome of at least seven Senate elections, five races for governor’s mansions and even a handful of House contests. Full story

October 1, 2014

A Senator to Replace Holder?

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Klobuchar has been mentioned as a possible attorney general pick. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The latest round of Cabinet handicapping is well underway, a welter of uninformed speculation (mixed with some White House trial balloons) about who might be nominated as attorney general. And the names of three Democratic senators keep getting bandied about — although they’ve all, with varying degrees of intensity, denied interest in the appointment.

From President Barack Obama’s perspective, it would arguably make sense for him, in the short term, to return to the congressional well for one of the final topflight, polarizing positions he’ll ever get the opportunity to fill. But the long-term downsides appear far greater — not only for his own legacy, but for the already wobbly balance of power at the Capitol.

Besides, taking the job at this time doesn’t look like a smart career move for any of the Senate trio meriting recent mention: Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Full story

September 18, 2014

Conservatives Pick Mike Lee as His Ambitious Pals Eye 2016

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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

September 15, 2014

Nuclear Option Helped Obama Refashion Bench

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Ten months after his fellow Democrats “went nuclear” in the Senate on his behalf, President Barack Obama is done putting his stamp on the federal judiciary — at least for the year, but maybe forever if Republicans take control of the place.

Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to exercise the so-called nuclear option, which he and his predecessors from both parties had threatened for more than a decade, created the biggest change in the congressional rules since the 1970s. Taking away the filibuster as a weapon for defeating nominees has given Obama nearly free rein this year in populating his own administration and the regulatory agencies.

Even more importantly, last November’s historic power play allowed the president to brush past intense GOP objections and reclaim an important outlet for perpetuating his legacy: Filling lifetime positions on the courts with like-minded judges who will still be serving long after Obama’s second term is over.

That probably will stop cold if the Senate switches partisan control come January. While Republicans can’t prevent votes on Obama’s choices while in the minority, they would be under no obligation to schedule any roll calls for his nominees if they’re the majority.

No matter what the electorate decides in seven weeks, Obama has already succeeded in his bid to refashion the bench — and the nuclear option has played a significant role. He has filled 30 percent of all the seats on the circuit courts of appeal, with a crucial 13 of those 53 judges confirmed since the filibuster was neutered. The bottom line result is that appointees of Democratic presidents are now the majority on nine of the 13 appellate courts — a nearly total reversal since Obama took office, when 10 had majorities of GOP appointees. (Thanks to four confirmations that launched the Senate’s post-nuclear era, the most important transformation was effected at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second-most influential bench in the country after the Supreme Court because it hears so many challenges to federal regulations.) Full story

September 10, 2014

Campaign Money Debate Won’t Help Hill’s Reputation

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Senate Democrats, such as (from left) Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren and Sheldon Whitehouse, are messaging on the Constitution. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s nothing more than another Senate floor sideshow this week, a stage-managed debate in slow motion where the ultimate outcome is such a decisive and foreordained defeat that almost no one is paying attention.

Paying short shrift to the campaign finance constitutional amendment may be understandable, especially in light of the two imminently consequential matters lawmakers must tackle before decamping to campaign: Voting to keep the government open beyond the election and deciding how to take a stand on the coming military intervention in Syria.

But passively perpetuating the enormous role of money in politics for another year, and with nothing more than a passionless “messaging vote,” is worrisome for a couple of reasons for anyone concerned about the badly frayed institutional reputation of Congress.

For one thing, such cavalier handling of a possible change to the Constitution can only intensify the perception that lawmakers rarely place seriousness of purpose ahead of politics.

The public had come to expect the legislative decks will be cleared for the rare deliberations of constitutional amendments, which is what happened when three such matters have come before the Senate in the past decade. (Republican proposals mandating balanced federal budgets, permitting laws against flag desecration and banning gay marriage all came up far short of the two-thirds majorities required.) But this time the Democrats are willing to let their bold idea for reconfiguring the Bill of Rights fade away with a routine walk-off-the-floor roll call. (Wednesday’s procedural voice vote set the stage for the disposative  party-line tally Thursday afternoon.)

For another thing, such a quick sidestepping of the issue will make it even more difficult next time to tackle one of the biggest obstacles to congressional collaboration.

The growing consensus, at least from the outside, is that the torrent of cash coursing into House and Senate campaigns is a main reason the Capitol has become such a dysfunctional mess — and there is no reversal in sight. Other really big institutionalized contributions to the problem include the partisan nature of redistricting and the polarizing of debate on television and online. So a good answer to the question, “What’s poisoning Congress?” starts with the simple mnemonic of the three Ms: money, maps and media. Full story

July 28, 2014

Possible Senate GOP Majority Would Be Young, but Would Have Enough Elders for Heft

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In a possible GOP Senate majority, Cochran is one of many veterans who could reclaim gavels. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo.)

Conventional wisdom holds that if Republicans take the Senate, generational turnover and term limits will combine to produce a balky and potentially amateurish legislative process next year.

That theory gets challenged by a close look at how the committee gavels are likely to be distributed if the party picks up the necessary six seats, which current race-by-race assessments reveal has become a slightly better than even-money proposition. Eight of the 20 chairmanships — including for almost all the premier policy-making panels — would be held by senators who have had such responsibility in Congress in the past.

In other words, the committee leadership in the 114th Congress would benefit from a significant amount of expertise and seasoning, even though in the aggregate the potential new Senate Republican majority would be relatively inexperienced. (If there are 51 members of the caucus come January, the minimum needed for a takeover, only two-fifths of them will have been senators for a decade or longer.) Full story

July 22, 2014

Elizabeth Warren’s Summer of Surrogacy Helps Keep 2016 Talk Alive

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Warren is traveling far and wide, sparking speculation about her national ambitions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

If Rand Paul is taking this summer’s most prominent turn in the Republican spotlight, then the same must be said for his Senate colleague Elizabeth Warren among the new generation of national Democratic players.

The two first-term senators are generating their surges in attention in different ways, probably because they have different timetables in mind for their presidential aspirations.

While Paul is overtly laying the groundwork for a virtually certain 2016 campaign with a series of bold fundraising, staffing and legislative moves totally disconnected from his home base in Kentucky, Warren has been taking another tack with a seemingly alternate objective. She, too, has been spending most of her not-in-session time politicking far from her home base of Massachusetts, but almost all her campaigning and cash collecting has been on behalf of others. Full story

July 21, 2014

Rand Paul’s 2016 Buzz Is Buzzier Than His Senate Colleagues’

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Paul might be on a roll. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The most wide open Republican presidential contest in modern times is shaping up, so a thousand things could change in the 80 long weeks before the first scheduled caucuses and primaries take place. And a couple hundred of them surely will.

With that enormous caveat stipulated up front, it’s worth recognizing that one aspirant is having a bit of a moment. Rand Paul has been generating at least as much policy, fundraising and organizational buzz this summer as any other potential candidate, and certainly more than the other possible contenders out of Congress.

Paul will be returning to the Senate Monday afternoon after spending three days in San Francisco, a highly unusual weekend destination for a conservative from Kentucky. But the senator concluded he had opportunities on three fronts to advance his nascent bid. He could raise money from Bay Area entrepreneurs sympathetic to his libertarian views. He could recruit some tech geeks to join his fledgling campaign staff. And he could deliver the keynote speech at a technology conference, to sell the notion that his views about free markets and personal privacy ought to be catnip to Silicon Valley.

It was Paul’s second such trip in as many weekends. The previous foray was to Sun Valley, Idaho, where he was invited to the super exclusive annual conference on media and technology organized by the investment bank Allen & Co. His time there reportedly included private meetings with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

When the August recess starts, Paul will be the first among his most ambitious senatorial colleagues to get to a more traditional political locale — he’ll spend three days in Iowa starting on Aug. 4 raising money for several county Republican organizations. The groups, of course, are crucial players in getting out the vote for the Iowa caucuses, which are (for now) scheduled to kick off the national nominating contest on Feb. 1, 2016. Full story

July 8, 2014

Cuban Conspiracy Aside, Menendez Troubles Remain

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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

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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 8, 2014

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

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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

May 22, 2014

Will the Kentucky Senate Race Be the Most Expensive Ever? Yep.

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The Kentucky Senate Race might be most expensive yet. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The figure has attained almost mythic status, but now it seems intuitively clear the number will come true: $100 million in spending on this year’s marquee Senate matchup in Kentucky, shattering the record for the most expensive congressional race in American history.

The explanations for such exorbitance have been well understood for a year. As the minority leader, Mitch McConnell would have no trouble raising whatever it took to dispatch his serious primary opponent and then wage an intense general election battle —mainly by running against President Barack Obama and virtually everything he stands for. Because she’s got by far the best takeover prospects of any Democratic Senate hopeful, Alison Lundergan Grimes will have no trouble raising whatever it takes to challenge the most influential, nationally polarizing Republican at the Capitol — in part by distancing herself from the president and his unpopular policies in the state.

And because control of the Senate for the next two years could very well hang in the balance, both national parties and legions of super PACs will spend whatever they can to tilt the outcome.

Kentucky, in other words, has always been first among equals on the roster of 2014 Senate battlegrounds. And, even as the roster of competitive contests has swelled past a dozen this spring, McConnell vs. Grimes showed no signs of yielding its status as the main event after Tuesday’s primary formalized their Nov. 4 matchup. (Averaging the four statewide polls in the past month, the most recent of which was last weekend, McConnell and Grimes are locked in a dead heat.)

Ahead of the primary, McConnell had raised $19.3 million, spending far more than half on television advertising and an elaborate get-out-the-vote precinct organization to secure his 60 percent of the Republican vote. Businessman Matt Bevin, who spent at least $4 million in hopes of engineering a tea party upset, drew just 35 percent.

While that was a trouncing by traditional measure, McConnell’s share of the vote was actually the smallest in a primary for any Kentucky senator seeking re-nomination since 1938. And Grimes, who faced only nominal opposition, was able to hold on to most of her war chest ($5 million in cash on hand on May 1) even while drawing about 95,000 more primary votes than McConnell. Full story

May 7, 2014

Why Pryor Decided Time Was Ripe to Appear With Obama

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

He asked for it. And anyone politically savvy enough to win two Senate elections must have decent reasons for doing something that seems so counterintuitive.

Mark Pryor is the only Democrat in the Arkansas congressional delegation and currently a clear-cut underdog to secure another term. That’s mainly because only about a third of the state’s voters approve of the job performance of President Barack Obama, even poorer numbers than his 2012 faring — the president lost Arkansas by 24 percentage points. In 2008, he lost to Sen. John McCain by a mere 20 points in the Natural State.

And yet it was at Pryor’s urging that Obama on Wednesday made his first trip to the state as president — a 150-minute foray that in reality was largely about midterm campaign politics, even though it was officially all about getting the first-responder-in-chief to put his own eyes on the South’s severe natural disasters.

“The federal government’s going to be right here until we get these communities rebuilt,” the president said after touring the tornado-ravaged suburb of Vilonia, 30 miles north of Little Rock. “I know you can count on your senator” and other local officials to deliver what will be required, Obama said, facing the cameras in shirt sleeves with a checkered-shirt-clad Pryor standing near his right shoulder.

Because of some unusual circumstances, the visit did not countermand the conventional wisdom that standing with the president is the most dangerous thing a vulnerable congressional Democrat could do between now and November.

Instead, the event provided Pryor with an extraordinary opportunity to burnish his own political brand. Full story

March 12, 2014

Feinstein Shifts Slow-Burning Anger From Guns to Spies

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Few senators wait until their 80s, or the start of their third decade in office, to have their breakout moment. But that’s what this past year has been for Dianne Feinstein.

At the end of last winter, the California Democrat surged to national renown as the most passionately vocal and dogged lawmaker in the uphill pursuit of the strictest new gun controls in more than a generation. The attention, both laudatory and condemning, was more than what most members receive in any one Congress. But now Feinstein is on course to outdo herself, with her blockbuster accusation that the CIA spied on Congress and intimidated her staff in an effort to hobble an oversight investigation into the agency’s former detention and interrogation program.

The twin crusades, which now stand to define the pinnacle of her prominence, are closely allied in one important way: Both have Feinstein playing against type, deploying blistering rhetoric and challenging hidebound practices in sharp contrast to her reputation, which is for level-headedness and deliberation.

At the same time, the two causes are polar opposites: Gun control has been a priority for the senator since 1978, when she ascended to the mayoralty of San Francisco after the incumbent, George Moscone, was assassinated. But becoming an outspoken critic of the clandestine community is an entirely new role for Feinstein; as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee for more than five years, she has positioned herself as one of the CIA’s most loyal defenders at the Capitol.

It’s that forceful reversal that may prove more lastingly important. Full story

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