Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 6, 2016

A Few Winners in a Dysfunctional Year

( Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

( Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s tough to call anyone a winner in a year that was among the least productive in Congressional history and saw a government shutdown in October, but one group stands out: the relative newcomers who have pushed to change the rules.

The group of senators led by Democrats Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico, finally prevailed on Majority Leader Harry Reid to make use of the procedural device known as the “nuclear option” to get rid of supermajority requirements for nominations except those to the Supreme Court. That rather seismic shift in Senate history seems likely to have longer-lasting repercussions than any of the legislation that moved through the Senate in 2013, in part because the GOP-led House wants no part of the legislative priorities championed by Democrats.

There were a few other winners this year:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Reid largely comes away from 2013 as a winner, as the outcome of the shutdown worked out fairly well for Democrats — using his strategy — and he was able to corral his caucus behind the big-ticket agenda items of the year, including the procedural changes and an immigration overhaul. He frequently infuriated the GOP by blocking amendments and thanks to the rules change, and time will tell if he and his party will pay a price down the line.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Like her House counterpart on the Budget Committee, Murray comes away as a winner. She continued to increase her national profile having negotiated the budget agreement with Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., that partially stops the sequester. What was suspected more than a year ago when Murray announced she would take the Budget Committee gavel came true, and Murray could factor into any potential future contest for leader of Senate Democrats (if Reid ever leaves, that is).

In a number of cases, senators who might be perceived as losers in a policymaking vacuum look like winners when factoring in a political context. So to use a casino term in a legislative body with a leader from Nevada, we’ll call this the year of the “push.”

Here are a few:

“Wacko Birds”

The Republican senators whom John McCain, R-Ariz., referred to, not so affectionately, as “wacko birds” did not achieve their legislative goals. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for instance, was unable to accomplish the defunding of Obamacare, and he was blamed by many for the standoff that led to the government shutdown. As a political matter however, Cruz raised his profile among conservatives.

Another member of that group, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, raised his profile with an old-school filibuster contesting the Obama administration’s drone policy, and by making a renewed push on a priority inherited from his father — auditing the Federal Reserve.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La.

Vitter has been on a sometimes quixotic campaign to eliminate the federal employer contribution for members and staff getting health insurance through the new Obamacare exchanges. He sought votes on an amendment to that effect several times, never finding success. Vitter’s teamed up with Citizens United on the effort, however, which could be useful as he’s looking toward a possible gubernatorial campaign.

The “Gang of Eight”

The eight senators who worked together to develop a comprehensive immigration overhaul that includes a path to citizenship managed to get legislation through the Senate with a strong bipartisan majority. Of course, legislative victories in one chamber only go so far and the immigration issue has shown few signs of life in the House. And Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has spent much of the time since trying to refurbish his conservative credentials after the bill faced a backlash on the right.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The minority leader had an interesting roller coaster of a year. His best moment came in negotiating the agreement to get the government back up and running in October, but it wasn’t long after that the role of minority leader itself lost some clout with McConnell and others unable to persuade Reid not to make use of the “nuclear option.” The result: McConnell now has less importance in agenda-setting. Of course, that comes with a caveat since it would increase the power wielded by McConnell if he achieves his goal of becoming majority leader in 2015. And if you count the fiscal cliff deal on the 2013 legislative scorecard, McConnell’s year improves considerably. That deal robbed the White House of any leverage it had on taxes by making the Bush-era tax cuts permanent for 99 percent of Americans without sacrificing the leverage of the sequester.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

You might have expected the chairman of the Finance Committee to appear on a “losers” list, since the tax overhaul that Baucus has been pushing in his final Senate term along with House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., hasn’t gained traction, despite a barnstorming tour and a lot of behind the scenes work developing policy proposals. But, that was all before President Barack Obama decided to nominate Baucus as the next ambassador to China.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

Gillibrand had her highest profile year yet, championing the issue of reducing military sexual assault both in the Capitol and to donors and political supporters across the country. Before Gillibrand made the move from the House to the Senate, few senators talked about the rampant and growing problem of military sexual assault or the role of commanders in perpetuating a hostile culture toward victims. Gillibrand introduced a bill to remove prosecution of violent crime from the chain of command and though the legislation never came to the floor and she was unable to garner enough votes to force Reid’s hand, she won plenty of media attention along the way. The flip side, however, was that the New Yorker’s aggressive pressuring of her Democratic colleagues irked those who didn’t back her bill. Gillibrand seemed to be painting opponents of her bill as “anti-victim,” angering Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who was the chief advocate of the Senate Armed Services language, which included adjustments short of changing the command structure.

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.

It was a banner year for Mikulski, who assumed the helm of the Appropriations Committee at the beginning of this Congress from the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. The next few weeks will be a big test of the Baltimore Democrat’s muscle, as appropriators are tasked with coming up with an omnibus spending bill that can pass both the House and the Senate by Jan. 15. Mikulski now has two years worth of top line numbers with which to work, even though they’re lower than she and Democrats would like. The budget deal included cuts to federal worker pensions — just the most recent blow to public employees who are concentrated highly in Mikulski’s Maryland. During the October government shutdown, Mikulski was one of the most passionate defenders of government workers and sources say she and Murray were key to ending the stand-off. This year also saw the largest class of female senators in the chamber’s history, a group within which Mikulski is considered dean. Her regular meetings with female members have fostered discussions and legislation that have demonstrated rare bipartisanship in an otherwise acrimonious year.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The veteran Republican lawmaker saw a resurgence in 2013, returning to a central role negotiating with Democrats after years of drifting in the wake of his presidential loss in 2008 and primary fight in 2010. McCain was a key member of the bipartisan group that pushed a comprehensive immigration bill through the Senate. Over the summer, he negotiated a deal with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to keep Reid (at least for a period) from exercising the nuclear option. McCain met with his former campaign rival Barack Obama multiple times at the White House and his acerbic view toward the far-right wing of his party proved salient when many of his colleagues were turning against the tea party during the October government shutdown. The “Maverick Returns” headlines abounded throughout the year, but maybe McCain isn’t so much an independent as he is nostalgic for the old days of the Senate, when signature legislation could be passed and bipartisan accomplishments were celebrated.

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