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January 26, 2015

Posts in "Senate"

January 25, 2015

Reid Surgery a Crucial Moment in a Storied Career

The Reid surgery is scheduled for Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Reid’s surgery is scheduled for Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

This is one of the most pivotal weeks in Harry Reid’s personal life, not to mention his congressional career.

How he handles Monday’s complex surgery to rebuild a crushed orbital socket and remove pools of blood behind and in front of his right eyeball will not only determine whether the Nevadan regains the vision he lost earlier this month in a freakish exercising mishap. His recovery’s pace and comprehensiveness also will help decide how long he remains the top Senate Democrat and his ability to seek re-election next year. Full story

January 13, 2015

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

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 9, 2014

What the Landrieu Adieu Says About the 2015 Senate

Cassidy's victory over Landrieu in Louisiana shifts the power dynamic in the Senate and the South. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Cassidy’s victory over Landrieu shifts the power dynamic in both the Senate and the South. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Now that Louisiana’s voters have added their crushing coda to this year’s Republican sweep, many of the ways in which next year’s Senate will be different have locked in place.

The most obvious change has been known since election night: The GOP will be in charge for the first time in eight years. But now we know Republicans will occupy 54 seats starting in January, strength in numbers they’ve exceeded in only six years of the previous three decades.

Beyond that, the defeat of Democrat Mary L. Landrieu — she took just 44 percent and lost her bid for a fourth term representing Louisiana by 151,000 votes in a runoff against GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy — will further shift senatorial demographics and political dynamics on several fronts.

Full story

December 8, 2014

Truce in ‘Nuclear’ Filibuster War May Be Senate GOP’s Best Option (Video)

McConnell, seen here during Sen. Ted Cruz's filibuster ahead of the 2013 government shutdown, has a decision to make about the nuclear option. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

McConnell, seen here during Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2013 filibuster before the government shutdown, has a decision to make on the nuclear option. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Beyond the sort of brinkmanship that always grabs public attention in the waning hours of the legislative year, one story out of Congress is going to fascinate the insiders and may infuriate the institutionalists.

Senate Republicans will meet Tuesday to debate what to do about the filibuster after they take over the place in four weeks. Will they make good on a threat to double-down on the “nuclear option” exercised by the Democrats, which would mean neutralizing the filibuster as a tool for stopping legislation in addition to nominations? Will they do the opposite and declare themselves totally magnanimous, proposing to return the rules to the way they were so the Democrats might begin leveraging the historic power of the minority? Or will they go to neither extreme and acquiesce in the new normal?

Full story

December 4, 2014

Obama’s Push for Political Ambassadors Reaching Lame-Duck Limit

Baucus is the ambassador to China. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Baucus is the ambassador to China. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Perhaps the last important contribution Max Baucus made to the culture of the Senate, where he spent 35 years, was to offer a blunt truth before becoming the American envoy in Beijing.

“I’m no real expert on China,” the Montana Democrat confessed during the January hearing on his nomination to be ambassador to the nation with the most people and the biggest economy in the world. But six days later, his colleagues voted, 96-0, to confirm him anyway.

The candor of that episode offered a glimpse into a debate that’s been underway for a century, and which brewed in the background all year before bubbling into public view this week. What should be the limit on a president’s ability to use ambassadorships as rewards for his political allies?

Full story

December 3, 2014

Paul Plots Paths to 2 Elections as Portman Takes Simpler Route

Paul has some big decisions to make about running for president and re-election in Kentucky. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Paul has some big decisions to make about running for president and re-election in Kentucky. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Yawner: Two first-term Republican senators announced Tuesday they’re seeking re-election in 2016.

Surprise: One said that means he won’t be running for president, while the other signaled he’s plotting how to circumvent the law to seek the White House and the Senate simultaneously.

The twin declarations reveal several things. The next presidential race really is already underway. The winnowing of an unusually enormous potential GOP field has begun and will soon accelerate, after some additional self-reflection. And the party has been presented early on with a potentially powerful fusion ticket.

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

November 12, 2014

Why Freshman Week Is a Lot Like College Orientation

The GOP's 2014 "wave" of senators pose for a photo with Mitch McConnell, the presumed next Senate majority leader. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The GOP’s 2014 “wave” of senators pose for a photo with Mitch McConnell, the presumed next Senate majority leader. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The notion that Congress is like college usually gets highlighted a few times each year: When members are rushing to meet several legislative deadlines before a lengthy recess, they tend to act very much like students at the end of the semester — pulling all-nighters to cram for exams and churn out papers assigned months ago.

But never is Capitol Hill more like a collegiate campus than in the middle of every even-numbered November, when all the newcomer lawmakers arrive — embodying a yeasty mix of wide-eyed naïveté and intensely competitive focus — to begin learning how dramatically their lives are about to change. It may be officially dubbed New Member Orientation, but those who have lived through it routinely describe it as “freshman week.”

Indoctrination into the formalities and folkways of life as a member of Congress begin Wednesday on both sides of the Hill. Six Republicans who have never held federal office before, joined by four Republicans and a single Democrat preparing to decamp from the House, will spend until Friday being instructed by their new Senate colleagues and some senior staffers on the parliamentary procedures, ethical expectations and bureaucratic necessities of their new workplace. (Two potential GOP Senate freshmen won’t be there because their fates won’t be certain for some time,  thanks to slow ballot counting in Dan Sullivan’s Alaska and the runoff in Rep. Bill Cassidy’s Louisiana.)

A similar series of bipartisan orientation meetings, starting with a massive cocktail party Wednesday evening and lasting until a lottery for office assignments on Nov. 19, is in store for at least 42 Republicans and 17 Democrats who have secured seats in the House. (Hope is still alive for GOP challengers to five Democratic incumbents in races that remain too close to call, and a pair of seats won’t be filled until the Dec. 6 Louisiana runoff.)

Full story

October 15, 2014

Voter Engagement Gap Hints at GOP Turnout Edge

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

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

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

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?

Klobuchar is one of a trio of senators being mentioned as possible attorney general candidates. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

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

September 15, 2014

Nuclear Option Helped Obama Refashion Bench

ISIL Senate Briefing

(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

Senate Democrats like Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren and Tom Udall are messaging on the constitution. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

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