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Posts in "Senate"
July 28, 2014
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
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
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
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.
June 25, 2014
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
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
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
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
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
March 5, 2014
Hill denizens of a certain age well remember the unpredictable Larry Pressler. He could be earning another entry as the answer to a political trivia question soon enough.
Pressler spent 18 years in the Senate representing South Dakota as a Republican before he was defeated in 1996 by just 8,600 votes. Now that the Democrat who sent him packing, Tim Johnson, is retiring after his own three terms, Pressler has decided he’s ready to try yet another comeback — as an independent.
The nascent campaign is easy to dismiss as an entirely quixotic ego play by a quirky 71-year-old career politician with a story already marked by several halfhearted runs toward the unattainable. That would be a bid for president when he was a 37-year-old Senate freshman, though he pulled out before the first primary. And a pitch to be mayor of Washington, D.C., two years after leaving Congress, but he never filed the paperwork. He ran for his state’s sole House seat four years after that, but more or less gave up and got crushed in the GOP primary by the incumbent governor.
This time, though, Pressler is pursuing his presumably last hurrah seriously enough that he’s already made a TV ad that aired during the Academy Awards. In the sparsely populated and relatively inexpensive state, he won’t have to raise much to reintroduce himself to the electorate. (My colleague Kyle Trygstad dug up Pressler’s year-end Federal Election Commission report that showed he brought in just under $30,000, including a $25,000 personal loan.)
His message — that Capitol Hill needs more mavericks like him and that he’d remain unbeholden by staying just one term — will resonate at least somewhat in a year of anti-incumbent fervor and disdain for partisan entrenchment.
Since World War II, three defeated senators have won their old jobs back. But each did so within four years of losing, and the last such return engagement began a quarter-century ago, with Washington Republican Slade Gorton.
Eight months from Election Day, Pressler remains the longest of long shots. (The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rate this race Favored Republican.) But if he becomes even a modestly credible third player in the race, he would at least make life more complicated for his longtime colleagues in the Republican Party, who have been counting on a victory by former Gov. Mike Rounds to be the easiest of the six pickups they require to take the Senate. Full story
February 11, 2014
The book on Ron Wyden is that he’s one of the Capitol’s grandest thinkers, with a sprawling range of policy interests matched with wonkish expertise, and eager to work outside the box to put a bipartisan stamp on his many big ideas.
All of that may be true, but so is this: On Thursday the Oregon Democrat will become the most liberal chairman in the modern history of the Finance Committee, the most powerful panel in the Senate.
Notwithstanding his many well-publicized feints toward Republicans — on health entitlements reform and tax simplification, trade liberalization and clean energy, foreign surveillance and domestic civil liberties, senatorial secrecy and campaign financing — Wyden remains among the senators most loyal to the mainstream American political left.
His voting record has earned him a 94 percent annual average support score during his Senate career from Americans for Democratic Action and an 88 percent approval level from the AFL-CIO. He’s voted the way President Barack Obama wanted 97 percent of the time in the past five years, CQ Roll Call’s congressional vote studies found. And he’s stuck with his side on 97 percent of votes that fell mostly along party lines during his 18 years as a senator — a time period when the annual Senate Democratic party unity score was 11 points below that. Full story
February 10, 2014
Sen. Pat Roberts might be in additional re-election trouble, thanks to a weekend story in The New York Times that’s generating buzz about how the Republican doesn’t have a home he can call his own in Kansas — but he does have a new case to make about his conservative credentials.
After 16 years in the Senate (and as many years before that in the House) cementing a reputation as an establishment Republican, one driven much less by ideology than by a desire for accomplishment, Roberts tacked hard to the right last year. In fact, among the six members of the Senate Republican Conference facing viable primary challenges, Roberts was unique in this regard: He opposed President Barack Obama much more often than before and also stuck with his party significantly more than he usually does.
The CQ Roll Call vote studies for 2013 found that Roberts voted against the president’s wishes 66 percent of the time, 6 points higher than the Senate GOP average. During Obama’s first term, the senator’s presidential opposition averaged 55 percent.
At the same time, Roberts toed the party line on 99 percent of the votes in which most Republicans voted the opposite way from most Democrats. That nearly perfect measure of loyalty was 13 points higher than the average Senate GOP party unity mark; it also was 8 points higher than Roberts’ average for the first four years of his current term.
February 9, 2014
Although John Walsh will become the newest senator on Tuesday, the historical record and the political temperature in Montana suggest he’ll have no better chance of winning this fall’s Senate race than he did before.
The conventional wisdom is that Gov. Steve Bullock has done his hand-picked lieutenant governor and fellow Democrat a phenomenal favor by sending him to Washington now. The post offers guaranteed visibility that will enhance his name recognition, the benefits of being on the inside that will boost his fundraising and the powers of the job that will allow him to deliver in ways that will prove the power of incumbency impossible to beat.
In fact, that’s hardly been the rule in the past, and it hardly looks to be reliably the case this year.
Walsh’s name will be added to the roster of 51 appointed senators of the past half-century. But of that group, only 19 of the 36 who tried went on to leverage the advantages of incumbency into election in their own right — a 56 percent success rate. Another 15 were placeholders who got out of the way at the next election.
And the final two, both tapped at the end of 2012, will now be joined by Walsh in seeing their places in that database decided this year. Each falls into a different camp. Full story
February 4, 2014
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama cited a single number again and again in warning that John McCain was not the sort of change agent the country needed: His Senate colleague and presidential opponent had voted with President George W. Bush 95 percent of the time.
The figure was plucked from the database of CQ Roll Call vote studies, a treasure trove for opposition researchers since the annual assessment of congressional voting patterns began in the early 1950s. And the number — accurate only for the previous year, when McCain tacked right in his pursuit of the Republican nomination — was seen as plenty effective in puncturing the Arizona senator’s reputation as a centrist maverick.
The selective marshaling of statistics is a necessary skill for politicians as much as it is for policymakers. And the work has been gearing up in recent weeks, as the landscape for the midterm elections becomes more clearly defined and the first congressional primaries (in Texas) loom in only a month.
A plurality of the attention is already focused, and looks destined to remain, on the quartet of Democratic senators running for re-election in states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012, because how well they fare will go a long way toward determining if Senate control switches to the GOP next year. And so plenty of scrutiny is being given to the glass-half-full, or glass-half-empty, nature of what our 2013 vote studies reveal about how loyal they’re being to both Obama and their party line. Full story
January 12, 2014
One of the biggest congressional stories of the decade starts unfolding Monday — not at the Capitol, but across the street.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in an epic balance of powers battle between the other two branches, one that’s been waiting to happen since George Washington’s time. During the hour, the justices may or may not signal clearly whether they’re going to permit the continued expansive use of the president’s recess appointment authority — or seriously limit its use for the first time.
That second outcome would give the Senate enormously more influence over the leadership of the departments and agencies and the tenor of the federal courts. But if the court rules that way, it will be almost impossible to notice any difference in the power dynamic before the beginning of next year — if then.
It may sound a bit paradoxical, but it’s the “nuclear option” that would guarantee such a delayed reaction.
And during that delay, a new measure of importance would get attached to the midterm elections. Full story