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Friday, September 25, 2015

Boehner's Sudden Resignation Sets Off Leadership Scramble

Today, Speaker of the House John Boehner announced that he will resign from the House at the end of October, throwing the House Republican Conference into disarray and sparking the largest shakeup in GOP leadership since former Speaker Dennis Hastert left the leadership in 2007. Almost immediately, the question of who will lead the House GOP arose. Speculation first turned to the soon-to-be-vacant Speaker’s chair. The inside favorite, and Boehner’s pick for the gavel, seems to be House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy; however, many question if McCarthy is ready for the top job, having just been promoted from Whip to Leader a little over a year ago. Indeed, Boehner has said that his plan was to retire in 2014, at the end of the 113th Congress. When then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary last year, however, his calculations changed. Not believing that McCarthy, who was next in line, was ready to be Speaker yet, he decided to return to Congress for one more year.

Whether there will be any legitimate candidates for Speaker besides McCarthy remains to be seen. So far, many members have announced that they will not run for Speaker, and few other than McCarthy has expressed any interest in the job. Among those who have taken themselves out of consideration are Ways and Means Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI, 1st) and House Freedom Caucus Chair Jim Jordan (R-OH, 4th), both of whom have large followings within the conference. While McCarthy may still be challenged by the conservative wing of the party—Financial Services Committee Chair Jeb Hensarling is said to be considering a run—the race is his lose.

While the race for Speaker is fairly predictable, the contest to replace McCarthy as Majority Leader is anything but. Current Majority Whip Steve Scalise would be next in line, and is expected to run. Unlike McCarthy, however, Scalise is not a lock to win the election. There are many others who are also interested in the post, including Budget Committee Chair Tom Price, House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Rules Committee Chair Pete Sessions. If Scalise runs for Leader, that will also open up the Whip spot. Sophomore Rep. Markwayne Mullin and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry have already launched their campaigns for the post, and former Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam could also make a bid to return to the leadership.

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Friday, June 05, 2015

An Early Look at Next Year’s High Profile Senate Races: Florida

The main event of next year’s election is, of course, the open presidential race, but with control of the Senate up for grabs, no sitting senator can rest easy, and many of those up for reelection next year have already begun to gear up their campaigns. Though the Republicans won a resounding majority in the Senate last November, they will have a tough time defending it; 24 Republican senators are up for reelection in 2016, many in blue-leaning states. In comparison, the Democrats will only have to defend 10 seats, most of which are safe, and will look to retake many of the seats they lost in the 2010 midterm election. With high profile recruits and many vulnerable and open seats, the 2016 election cycle promises to have some of the most intriguing Senate races in recent memory. In the coming weeks, Beltway InsiderTM will preview next year’s top matchups, starting with Florida.

Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) seat, by itself, would have been tantalizing pickup opportunity to Democrats. However, when Rubio announced that he will run for president, instead of reelection to the Senate, his seat became a key part of Democrats’ plans to retake the majority. This race is listed as a tossup in several different ratings, and should prove to be one of the most competitive campaigns in the country. So far, the candidates include top recruits Representatives Patrick Murphy (D-FL, 18th) and Ron DeSantis (R-FL, 6th). Murphy first came to Congress by narrowly defeating former Representative Allen West (R-FL, 18th) in 2012 by just .58% of the vote. He is now serving his second term in Congress, having easily won reelection to his conservative-leaning district in a bad year for Democrats. His entry into the race in late March was touted as a big recruitment win, with many national Democrats impressed with his fundraising ability. However, his path to the nomination could be complicated. Outspoken liberal Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL, 9th) has also expressed his interest in the race. Grayson lacks viability as a statewide candidate, and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Jon Tester told Grayson as much during a tense phone call last month. Though the DSCC has since endorsed Murphy and promised his campaign more money, Grayson’s entry into the race could still make the Democratic primary more difficult for Murphy.

Ron DeSantis was first elected to Congress in 2012 on the back of Tea Party support, and during his first term was rated as one of the most conservative members of the Florida delegation. In the House, he has continued to court conservatives, helping to found the House Freedom Caucus, a group that works to push the House Republican Conference’s ideology to the right, and he has earned endorsements from national Tea Party and conservative groups for his Senate run. Since declaring his candidacy last month, however, he has also taken steps to lock up the establishment wing of the Republican Party, recently announcing the support of high-ranking Florida fundraisers. DeSantis’ move to gain the backing of Florida’s top Republican donors could help him in the primary; so far, he is running against only nominal opposition in the Republican primary, but that could change. Florida’s Lieutenant Governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, recently formed a super PAC, signaling that he could enter the race soon.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Cruz, Paul, Rubio--Which Could Become President?

The Senate, it seems, is full of former, current, and future presidential candidates. Despite its dismal track record as a launching pad for presidential campaigns (since 1960, out of 47 sitting senators who have run for the presidency, only President Obama has been successful), the world’s most deliberative body remains attractive to any politician with national aspirations. This cycle, at least three members of the Senate will be running for president: Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Cruz is the first Republican presidential candidate to officially announce his campaign this cycle. Since coming to the Senate in 2013, he has made a name for himself as a conservative firebrand. His uncompromising tactics and devotion to right-wing ideology have earned him the respect and support of the Tea Party, and helped inspire the creation of the similar-minded House Freedom Caucus. However, he has also engendered plenty of enmity among his more moderate Republican colleagues, and has more than once held up critical, bipartisan legislation in both the House and Senate. Despite being an ardent foe of President Obama and opposing most of his policies, Cruz and Obama do have something in common: they have both proved to be similarly ill-suited to the Senate, and looked for a way out soon after being elected to it. However, while Obama’s successful campaign was built on his outsider image and the promise of “change we can believe in”, Cruz’s brand of iconoclasm seems designed to provoke and polarize, rather than inspire. If his career in the Senate is any indication, Cruz’s presidential campaign could garner support from the extreme right-wing of the Republican party, but will ultimately fail due to a lack of appeal to mainstream Republican voters. Cruz could become the conservative alternative to the establishment’s candidate, but he will ultimately fail to win the nomination. After the election, he will probably resign or decide not to seek reelection. He could run for governor of Texas, or, following in the footsteps of former Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), become the head of a conservative think tank. In any event, I don’t expect Senator Ted Cruz to remain a senator for very long.

Paul is set to officially declare his candidacy on April 7, with a rally in Louisville. Paul was first elected to the Senate in 2010 and at first joined the right wing of the Senate Republican Conference. He claims a good deal of Tea Party support, and like his father, former Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), he identifies with the libertarian movement. However, recently, he has been willing to compromise with both mainstream Republicans and Democrats, working with Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) on a bill to reform the criminal justice system. Paul has also reached out to communities outside of the Republican party’s natural constituencies, including opening an office in Silicon Valley. This is savvy positioning on Paul’s part—he wants to be seen as the conservative candidate who is still electable in a general election. In response to Cruz’s campaign announcement, for example, he criticized Cruz for “throwing out read meat”, and emphasized “winability” as important in the primary. Paul is trying to straddle the line between pandering to the base and compromising to build support outside of the Republican party. So far, it’s unclear whether he will be successful.

Rubio will be the last of the three senators to declare his candidacy, with an announcement set for April 13. Rubio also came to the Senate in 2010, when he beat former Republican Governor Charlie Crist in the Republican primary, then, when Crist ran in the general election as an independent, defeated both him and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek. Out of the three senators, Rubio’s Senate career has been the most traditional. He has worked hard to steadily make a name for himself on foreign policy, vehemently opposing President Obama’s Cuba policy, pushing for an increase in defense spending in a budget fight last week (over the protests of Senator Paul), and chairing a key subcommittee on the Foreign Relations Committee. His one major misstep in the Senate came in 2013, when he introduced a huge comprehensive immigration reform bill, which passed the Senate but didn’t get a vote in the House. Faced with opposition from conservatives, he has since stiffened his stance on immigration, emphasizing increased border security instead. I think that, out of these three Republican senators, Rubio has the best chance of winning the presidency. He has already earned the respect of the donor class, he has secured key consultants for his campaign-in-waiting, and his status as the first Hispanic nominee would instantly expand his voter base. If Rubio does not win the nomination, he will surely be a on the short list for vice president, or will be a top candidate for a cabinet post (Secretary of State, maybe?). If the Republicans are unsuccessful next year, he will be one of the frontrunners going into 2020.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Rise of the Senate Progressive Caucus: Democrats’ Midterm Defeat Elevates Liberal Senators to Positions of Power

By any measure, the 2014 midterms were a disaster for the Democratic Party. Not only did the Republicans increase their majority in the House, but they nearly swept the board of Senate races, taking control of the Senate for the first time in eight years. But liberal Senate Democrats, rather than being chastened by their party’s decimation, may see their prominence grow in the 114th Congress.

One unintended consequence of the election has been to liberalize the Senate Democratic caucus. The November election thinned the ranks of moderate Senate Democrats from red and swing states, leaving behind a caucus that mostly consists of progressive senators from solidly blue states. Many post-mortem analyses of the election argued that the Democrats’ messaging was muddled; a smaller caucus that has a more unified ideology could present clearer positions that contrast more sharply with the opposing party. In addition, now that they are in the minority, the remaining liberal senators no longer need to moderate their positions in order to save their politically vulnerable brethren from taking tough votes.

To be sure, there is still a sizable moderate Democrat contingent in the Senate. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and Jon Tester (D-MT) all hail from red states, and can still be expected to vote with the Republicans on several issues. The Senate Democrats’ role as President Obama’s pocket veto will certainly be diminished in the 114th Congress. But, the new Democratic minority has already proven to be a thorn in the Republicans’ side; this week, they filibustered the Keystone XL Pipeline, preventing its passage.

Furthermore, with the defeat or retirement of several moderate Democratic committee chairmen, the ensuing shuffling of committee seats has resulted in liberal senators landing in leadership roles on some of the Senate’s most important committees. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who was a key supporter of the oil and gas industry and had served as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was defeated in a runoff in December. Her replacement as the top Democrat on the committee, however, is Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who has long fought against offshore drilling in her home state. The Banking Committee had been chaired by a moderate, Tim Johnson (D-SD), whose friendship with the financial industry has been well-documented. In stark contrast, the new ranking minority member, Sherrod Brown (D-OH), is a vocal advocate of financial reform and has long been an opponent of Wall Street. Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) retirement resulted in Patty Murray’s (D-WA) promotion to the top position at the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which allowed Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to take her position at the Budget Committee. Both are staunch liberals.

Of course, ranking members’ influence on legislation is limited; in committees, most controversial legislation comes down to a party line vote. However, if used correctly, the role can come with increased prominence on Capitol Hill and a larger voice in the media. In addition, the ranking member’s personal staff is augmented by committee aides, who are more specialized and better equipped do research and conduct investigations into issues under the committee’s jurisdiction. Finally, the ranking members will become chairs of their respective committees if their party takes control of the Senate again. The Senate’s liberals, therefore, are in a key position to affect policy now, and will be ready if the Democrats can regain the majority in 2016.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

What Would Happen if the Republicans Gain Control of the Senate? Part Three: Committees, Continued

Continuing with my post from last week, here are my predictions for the rest of the Senate committees for the 114th Congress.

Budget: Current Ranking Member Jeff Sessions will become chair of the Budget Committee, and is eligible for a full six year term. Predicting who will be ranking member is not so clear-cut. Current Chair Patty Murray may choose to serve as ranking member, but she is also in line for the top Democratic spot on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Should she decide to switch to that committee, Senator Ron Wyden is the next most senior, but would surely pass in favor of the Finance Committee. Bill Nelson is next in line, but could choose to be ranking member of the Commerce Committee. If he chooses Commerce, the next most senior Democrat is Debbie Stabenow, who would pass and instead serve on Agriculture. Senator Bernie Sanders is the fifth most senior Democrat.

Commerce: Current Ranking Member John Thune will become chair of the Commerce Committee, and is also eligible for a full six year term. Chairman Jay Rockefeller is retiring this year, but Senator Barbara Boxer, who is next most senior, will want to serve as ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. In that case, Senator Bill Nelson, who is most senior after Boxer, could become ranking member, but may have to choose between Commerce and Budget. If not Nelson, Senator Maria Cantwell is the most senior Democrat.

Energy and Natural Resources: Senator Lisa Murkowski is in line to chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. However, if the Republicans fail to take the majority, her term as ranking member will be up and she will have to step down. It is little wonder, then, that Murkowski has promised to work hard to unseat her Democratic counterpart, Senator Mark Begich; his seat could be the difference between her wielding a committee gavel, and taking a seat on the back bench of the Senate.

On the Democratic side, current Chair Mary Landrieu is locked in a tight battle with Representative Bill Cassidy, so even if the Democrats hold on to the majority, her return to the head of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is not assured. Her prospects are made murkier still by Louisiana’s jungle primary system; all candidates will appear on the same ballot on November 4th, and if none of them wins a majority of votes, the top two vote-getters will proceed to a December runoff. It could be a month after the election before we know who the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee will be. If Landrieu loses, Senator Maria Cantwell will probably succeed her, but would have to give up her position on the Small Business Committee.

Environment and Public Works: Having been displaced by Senator McCain on the Armed Services Committee, Senator James Inhofe’s consolation prize would be the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. However, having already served as the committee’s chair from 2003 to 2007, he would be limited to just two more years. Current Chairwoman Barbara Boxer would almost certainly want to stay on as ranking member.

Finance: The leadership of the Finance Committee will stay the same; Ranking Member Orrin Hatch will become the chair, for up to six years. Current Chairman Ron Wyden will be ranking member.

Foreign Relations: The leadership of the Foreign Relations Committee will also stay the same; Ranking Member Bob Corker will become the chair, and is eligible to serve a full six year term. Chairman Bob Menendez will be ranking member.

Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP): Senator Mike Enzi will reclaim the chair of the HELP Committee. Having previously served as chair from 2005 to 2007, he can hold the position for up to four years. He also served as ranking member from 2007 to 2013, and has served as ranking member of the Subcommittee on Children and Families since his term as the full committee’s ranking member expired.

On the Democratic side, current Chairman Tom Harkin is retiring at the end of this Congress. Like the Commerce Committee, the HELP Committee is so stacked with senior senators that it is difficult to tell who will succeed Harkin as the top Democrat. Barbara Mikulski is next most senior, but will probably want to serve as vice chair of Appropriations. Patty Murray is next in line, but she may instead choose to serve as ranking member of the Budget Committee, which she currently chairs. Bernie Sanders, who now leads the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is the fourth most senior Democratic senator on the HELP Committee. While most senators would consider moving from Veterans’ Affairs to HELP a promotion, helping veterans is an important issue to Sanders, who was a key figure in negotiating the VA reform bill that passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority last summer. Like Murray, he may decide to serve as ranking member of the committee he currently chairs. The next most senior Democrat on the HELP Committee is Bob Casey.

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (HSGAC): Senator Ron Johnson will chair HSGAC in the next Congress. Though he is just four years into his first term in the Senate, he is already the third most senior Republican senator on the committee, behind only current Ranking Member Tom Coburn, who is retiring this year, and Senator John McCain, who will chair the Armed Services Committee. Current Chairman Tom Carper will serve as ranking member.

Indian Affairs: The leadership of the Indian Affairs Committee should remain the same; Vice Chairman John Barrasso will become Chairman, and Chairman Jon Tester will serve as Vice Chairman.

Intelligence: Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss is retiring this year. Senator Richard Burr, who is currently ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is next in line. Current Chair Dianne Feinstein will serve as the vice chair.

Judiciary: The leadership of the Judiciary Committee will probably stay the same. Ranking Member Chuck Grassley will become the chair, and is eligible to serve for six years. In this role, Grassley is in the best position to thwart President Obama’s judicial nominees. Besides holding contentious nomination hearings, he could simply decide to table the nominations, so that they are never even brought up for a vote. Chairman Patrick Leahy will probably serve as ranking member. The Judiciary Committee has become a major part of Leahy’s legacy in the Senate; he has continuously served as either the chair or ranking member of the committee since 2001. He will also want to be in the best position to oppose Grassley’s attempts to derail Obama’s nominees. However, he may instead decide to leave the Judiciary Committee to be ranking member on another committee; he is the most senior Democrat on both Agriculture and Appropriations. Leahy was offered the chair of Appropriations two years ago, after Senator Dan Inouye passed away, but ultimately decided to continue serving on top of the Judiciary Committee. If the Republicans take control of the Senate, the Judiciary Committee, which Leahy has chaired since 2007, may lose its allure. If so, the next most senior Democrat is Dianne Feinstein, but she may want to serve as vice chair of the Intelligence Committee. Chuck Schumer is the most senior, after Feinstein.

Small Business and Entrepreneurship: Ranking Member Jim Risch will be chairman. Current Chair Maria Cantwell would become ranking member of Energy and Natural Resources if Mary Landrieu loses reelection, or else could be in line to be ranking member of Commerce. Skipping over Carl Levin, who is retiring, and Landrieu herself, Mark Pryor is the fourth most senior Democrat on the committee, but his return to the Senate is uncertain as well. Ben Cardin ranks after Pryor.

Veterans’ Affairs: Ranking Member Richard Burr will become chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, unless he decides to chair the Intelligence Committee instead. If he does, Johnny Isakson is the second most senior and would claim the gavel. Current Chairman Bernie Sanders could stay and become ranking member, but might decide to serve as ranking member on a different committee. If he does, Sherrod Brown would be next in line, after Jay Rockefeller, who is retiring, and Patty Murray, who currently chairs the Budget Committee.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

What Would Happen if the Republicans Gain Control of the Senate? Part Three: Committees

In my last two posts, I discussed how a Republican victory in November would affect the Senate leadership and the Obama Administration. This week, I will analyze how a Republican majority might affect the Senate committees, including the committee chair selection process in general. I will also speculate on the Republican and Democratic leadership of the Appropriations, Agriculture, Armed Services, and Banking committees for the 114th Congress. Next week, I’ll continue with my predictions for the rest of the committees, from Budget to Veterans’ Affairs. Please note that I have assumed that the Republicans will not drastically reorganize the committees for the next Congress. Normally, a new majority party makes a few minor changes to the committee structure when they come into power, such as changing the names of a couple of committees. However, a major reshuffling, in which several committees are created or abolished, is not out of the question, in which case these predictions will be moot.

Congressional committees have historically been the basis of power in Congress. In recent years, however, Congress has moved away from “regular order”, where committees play a vital role in the consideration and passage of legislation. Instead, many bills are negotiated behind closed doors by congressional leaders before being introduced directly to the full House and Senate, bypassing the committees entirely.

Despite committees’ diminished power over legislation and continued gridlock in Congress, the perks of chairing a congressional committee are still substantial. Committee chairs have larger budgets at their disposal, sometimes as much as twice the amount allotted to ranking minority members. This in turn means that they can hire more staff, and can afford to pay the salaries of more qualified personnel. Committee chairs have total control over their committees’ subcommittees. They can create or abolish any subcommittee, as long as the subcommittee’s jurisdiction does not exceed the full committee’s jurisdiction. They also appoint members to the subcommittees and decide who will chair them. Committee chairs set the committee’s agenda, such as the topics the committee will hold hearings on and the bills the committee will consider, and schedule hearings, markups, and other meetings. In this way, chairs have almost complete control over the legislation and nominations sent to their committees. It is little wonder, therefore, that committee chairs remain prized positions.

Both Democrats and Republicans use seniority to determine their committee chairs and ranking members. By tradition, the member of the majority party on the committee with the most seniority—seniority on the committee, not in the full Senate—becomes chair of the committee. The Senate Republican Conference has an additional rule for determining committee leadership: their chairs and ranking members are limited to one six-year term at the top position of a committee. As a result of this rule, six ranking members’ terms expired at the end of the 112th Congress. However, years served as ranking member don’t count towards years served as chair, so five of the former ranking members are eligible to become committee chairs if the Republicans gain the majority in the Senate (Susan Collins, who was Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is no longer on the committee).

Below, I’ve made my predictions for who will serve as each Senate committee’s chair and ranking member for the 114th Congress, assuming that the Republicans retake the majority. Most of the committees are straightforward: the chair will become the ranking member, and vice versa. For a few committees, however, the leadership was not as easy to predict. Four committee chairs are retiring this year, with another, Senator Mary Landrieu, locked in a tough reelection battle. Predicting who will fill their spots is difficult due to the number of Democratic senators who are senior members of multiple committees. Some senators are in the enviable situation of having a few different committees on which they could choose to serve as ranking member. Their choices will affect the decision-making of the next-most senior senator, and the senator after that. In fact, for some committees, it is necessary to go to the fourth or fifth most senior senator in order to game out every situation.

Appropriations: Senator Thad Cochran, having survived his toughest reelection campaign ever, will take the gavel of the Appropriations Committee. Cochran was forced to give up his post as vice chair at the end of the last Congress but still has four years remaining to serve as chair, having previously led the committee from 2005 to 2007. Though the committee has declined in power since the institution of House Republicans’ ban on earmarks, it remains the most sought-after committee assignment. The vice chair will be current Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, unless Senator Patrick Leahy, who has more seniority, decides to leave the top post on the Judiciary Committee in favor of Appropriations.

Agriculture: If Senator Pat Roberts is reelected, he will take over the chair of the Agriculture Committee, which he could hold for a full six year term. If he loses his election, however, the next most senior Republican on the committee is John Boozman, who represents farm state Arkansas and would surely leap at the chance to chair a committee of such vital importance to his constituents. The ranking member will be current Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow.

Armed Services: Senator John McCain will be the next chair of the Armed Services Committee, and he is eligible to lead the committee for up to six years. He previously served as Ranking Member but was forced to resign at the end of the 112th Congress when his term expired. McCain has been a vocal critic of Obama’s response to the growing threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; his new, more prominent role atop the Armed Services Committee will put him in an ideal position to investigate the administration’s strategy.

On the Democratic side, Chairman Carl Levin is retiring this year, so Senator Jack Reed, who currently chairs the Subcommittee on Seapower, is in line to serve as ranking member. However, he is also the second most senior Democrat on the Banking Committee, whose chair, Tim Johnson, is also retiring. Armed Services is considered the more prominent committee, but if Reed decides to be ranking member of Banking instead, Senator Bill Nelson would become ranking member of Armed Services.

Banking: Having been kicked out of the top Republican spot on the Appropriations Committee by Cochran, Senator Richard Shelby will have to settle for the chair of the Banking Committee. Shelby previously served a full six year term as ranking member, but is eligible to serve another six years as chair. Current Chairman Tim Johnson is retiring; the second most senior Democrat is Jack Reed, who will probably take a pass to serve as ranking member of Armed Services. In that case, Senator Chuck Schumer would become ranking member of the Banking Committee.

Check back next week to see the rest of my committee predictions.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

What Would Happen if the Republicans Gain Control of the Senate? Part Two: The Obama Administration

In my last post, I wrote about the Republicans’ chances to take the majority in the Senate, what the Senate GOP leadership would look like if they take over enough seats, and what Harry Reid’s contingency plans might be if he loses the role of Majority Leader. While Reid and the rest of the Senate Democrats surely dread being reduced to the minority, the Obama administration has many reasons to fear a Republican Senate as well. In this post, I will focus on the effect a Republican majority would have on the Obama administration’s final two years in office, and how the administration will deal with a Congress that is completely controlled by the GOP.

It’s safe to say that losing the Democratic majority in the Senate would be a huge blow to President Obama. The president’s most immediate problem will be getting nominations approved. Senate Democrats have had plenty of trouble approving the president’s nominees, especially since they lost their supermajority. However, late last year, Reid and the Democrats decided to use the “nuclear option”—unilaterally change Senate rules to allow most nominees to be approved by a simple majority—in response to Senate Republicans’ blanket opposition to all of the president’s nominees. Since then, the nomination bottleneck has cleared a bit, though many nominees have still been blocked by other tactics. However, if the Republicans become the majority, Obama will again be unable to fill vacant judicial and executive positions without their help. The Republican roadblock will, if anything, be stronger than ever. Not only will the Democrats lack the votes to form a simple majority on their own, but the nominees won’t even be voted on without approval from the Senate Republican leaders. Mitch McConnell, who will almost certainly become Majority Leader, could extract concessions out of the president in return for the approval of the nominees. The Obama Administration could be faced with two years in which, with its power already waning, it is hamstrung by its inability to appoint any new federal judges or senior administration officials.

A Republican Senate would also make passing legislation even more difficult for the Democrats. On the surface, that might not seem like such a loss; not much is being done in Congress anyway. But, there are some measures, such as spending bills, that need to be passed every year. In past years, Republicans in the House have tried to force the Democrats to accept the provisions they want, such as lower spending and a balanced budget amendment, but have been pressured to cave on their demands when the Senate passed their own legislation. However, with the Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, they will feel less need to compromise. If the administration wants legislation passed, congressional leaders could water it down or attach “poison pill” amendments to it, then present Obama with two choices: take it, or leave it. The president will be forced to either accept the Republicans’ bill, or veto it and risk having no bill at all.

In addition, since taking office, the president has had the luxury of having the Senate as a de facto pocket veto. When the Republicans gained the majority in the House in 2010, one of the first things they did was vote on a repeal of Obamacare. The House has continued to pass a flood of legislation designed to oppose Obama’s major initiatives and roll back measures that have already been enacted. Fortunately for the administration, this hostile legislation died in the Senate; in fact, most of it languished without even being voted on. As a result, Obama has only vetoed two bills, among the fewest by any president. However, with Republicans in control of both houses, the chance increases that legislation he dislikes could end up on his desk. If there is political pressure against a veto, he might feel that he has no choice but to sign the bill, though he dislikes it. This is the very situation President Clinton found himself in when he signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Wanting to veto it, he signed it instead due to public opinion at the time, though he deeply regretted it later. Obama could face similar situations if Congress sends him legislation he opposes.

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Monday, August 04, 2014

What Would Happen if the Republicans Gain Control of the Senate? Part One: Senate Leadership

With the congressional primary season almost over and November 4th just three months away, plenty of ink has been spilled trying to predict the results of the midterm elections. Increasingly, the consensus is that the Republicans have a good chance at gaining the majority in the Senate, and so far, the odds seem to be in their favor. Including special elections, there are 36 Senate races this year, of which the Democrats must defend 21. Eleven are safe, while seven are competitive and three are all but lost. Meanwhile, 15 Republican-held seats are up for election, only two of which could be considered competitive. Though a Republican wave, like the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, doesn’t seem forthcoming, the GOP doesn’t need a wave to take the Senate; if they focus on races in a handful of red states and pick up at least six seats, they will regain the majority. In anticipation of a Republican victory in November, Beltway Insider™ will use the months leading up to Election Day to analyze what would happen if the Senate changes hands. This first post will focus on changes to the leadership. Subsequent posts will go over changes at committees, and the effect a Republican Senate would have on the Obama Administration’s final two years in office.

If the Republicans pick up six or more Senate seats and gain control of the Senate, Senator Mitch McConnell will almost certainly become Senate Majority Leader. He is the only incumbent Republican senator in any danger of defeat, but recent polls have consistently put him ahead of his challenger, Allison Lundergan Grimes. The chances of him being knocked off are slim at best. Were he reelected and the GOP to retake the Senate, his ascension to the role of Majority Leader would be almost automatic; no member of his conference could present a real challenge to him.

As Majority Leader, McConnell would undoubtedly use his post to limit the power of the minority, like current leader Harry Reid. The office of the Senate Majority Leader lacks the power of the Speaker of the House—traditionally, the leader is only the first among equals—but it does have a few useful tools at its disposal. For example, it is the leader’s right to be recognized first when both he and another senator ask for recognition from the chair to speak. By tradition, the Majority Leader sets the Senate’s legislative agenda and controls the floor debate. One power that has seen more frequent use under Reid is “filling the tree”, which prevents any senator from introducing amendments. Reid has used this power to stop senators from introducing amendments which could delay or sideline a bill, or to stop Republicans from introducing any amendments at all. Many Republicans have argued that, though Reid often complains about obstructionism, he’s actually a tyrant with an unprecedented amount of power who has unduly limited their rights. McConnell would surely use these powers to limit the Democrats’ influence the same way Reid has limited the Republicans.

Reid’s contingency plans aren’t clear. However, if he were to lose the role of Majority Leader, he still has some options. He could follow in the path of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and continue to serve at the head of his party, leading the opposition to the Republican majority and working to restore the Democrats to power. Due to the filibuster and the difficulty in getting enough votes for cloture, the minority often has the power to stop bills from passing in the Senate, so such an effort would not be fruitless. Reid could then look forward to the next election, when more Democratic voters will turn for the presidential race and the Republicans will have to defend 24 Senate seats to the Democrats’ 10.

Alternatively, he could take the route of former Speaker Dennis Hastert, who stepped down from the leadership, and later resigned his seat in the House entirely, after the Democrats took control of the House. Reid could decide that, without the powers of the Majority Leader, the daily slog of being in Congress isn’t worth the effort anymore. He’ll turn 75 in December, he’s up for reelection in 2016, and he barely survived against a flawed candidate, Sharron Angle, in his last campaign. He’s still unpopular in Nevada, and could face a stiffer challenge this time if Gov. Brian Sandoval decides to run against him. If the Democrats lose the majority, it would be as good a time as any for Reid to retire. If he does, attention would immediately shift to the second and third highest Democrats, Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer. When Reid was on the ropes in 2010 and his return to Washington looked unlikely, Durbin and Schumer quietly began to position themselves for what would have been a heavyweight fight for the leadership. Now, four years later, that fight could play out for the minority leader’s spot if Reid decides he doesn’t want it.

Though the November election surely seems dire to Senate Democrats, the outlook of a Republican Senate is even graver from the Obama administration’s point of view. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss how a hostile Senate will affect the administration’s final two years in office, and how the president will deal with a completely Republican-controlled Congress.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Election of New House Republican Leaders Could Defuse Tension Between Establishment and Tea Party

Last week, following Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA, 7th) stunning primary defeat on June 10 to a previously unknown economics professor, David Brat, House Republicans met to elect their leaders for what remains of the 113th Congress. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA, 23rd) easily won the election to replace Cantor as Leader. Only one other congressman, Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID, 1st), ran for the spot; by the time he announced his candidacy three days after Cantor’s defeat, it was too late to make a difference. The race to replace McCarthy as Majority Whip remained unsettled leading up to the vote when, in a surprisingly overwhelming victory on the first ballot, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA, 1st) defeated both Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam (R-IL, 6th) and Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN, 3rd).

McCarthy’s elevation to Majority Leader is seen as a victory for the establishment, and rightly so; Speaker John Boehner (R-OH, 8th) would much rather have McCarthy, an ally, as his right hand than Labrador, who led opposition to his reelection as Speaker at the start of this Congress. In comparison, Scalise received votes from members of both the Tea Party and the establishment. Though many in the conservative wing of the conference chose to support Stutzman, claiming that Scalise is too close to Boehner, the Louisianan is sure to be a conservative voice at the leadership table. He currently chairs the right-wing Republican Study Committee, a group of the most conservative Republicans in the House. Furthermore, Scalise will be the only member of the leadership from either a red state or from the South.

Despite Scalise’s win, many members of the House Republican Conference remain unsatisfied with the leadership lineup, and have pledged to contest the leadership elections when the Republicans meet again in November. Several have expressed their opinion that the new leaders, far from invincible, could be vulnerable to challengers, and tried to frame last week’s election as merely an “audition”; the real election, they say, will be when the new leaders have to run for reelection. One reason is that with the midterm elections just months away, the results of the next vote on the leadership could be much different, depending on how the election goes for the Republicans and how the makeup of the conference changes. As House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK, 3rd) said, “the nature of the November general election will determine whether any or all of them in leadership survive. This is just the front edge of a long storm.”

Others argued that the week between Cantor’s defeat and the vote on the leadership was too short a timeframe to mount an effective campaign for Majority Leader. It limited the amount of support the conservative wing of the party could have generated; potential candidates Jim Jordan (R-OH, 4th), Pete Sessions (R-TX, 32nd), and Jeb Hensarling (R-TX, 5th), who could have provided tougher challenges to McCarthy with help from outside groups, instead chose not to run. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS, 1st) said “As quickly as they moved, it was hard for anybody outside of the Capitol to influence it. If the end result is just a promotion within the dynasty, that won’t be good enough for the base of the Republican Party. Conservative groups won’t be happy with that and it’s as if we didn’t listen at all.”

Despite these claims, however, it’s more likely that the results of today’s vote will simply be ratified when Republicans caucus to elect their leaders again. First, the midterm election seems unlikely to significantly change the makeup of the House Republican Conference. Unlike past elections, the anti-incumbent fever that has afflicted Congress in the past few elections seems to have died down. Cantor’s defeat stands as the exception; 31 states have held congressional primaries so far, but only one other House member, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX, 4th) has been defeated. While Republicans seem poised to make gains in the Senate in November, it’s unlikely they can unseat many more House Democrats; most of the Democrats occupying red districts lost in the GOP wave of 2010, limiting the number of easy pickups for the Republicans.

Some members may still be interested in challenging the new leaders in the next election, and any potential candidates will have several months to generate support among their colleagues. However, the leaders will also be able to take advantage of this time to strengthen their positions. Though the House will mostly be in recess between now and the November election, surely the leaders will be savvy enough to use the time, and the powers of the leadership, to shore up their support. Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI, 3rd), one of the staunchest conservatives in the House and the biggest supporter of Labrador’s bid, said “I think this was our best shot to change leadership, not November…the leadership team has the advantage of handing out committee assignment and chairmanship to win over votes. Right now, those positions are already locked in place, so it’s very difficult to persuade members the way they can a few months from now.” Amash knows too well the power of the leaders, having had his seat on the prominent Budget Committee stripped from him by the leadership.

It’s no secret that the Republican party has been split in recent years, and certainly the ongoing war between the establishment and conservative wings was a major factor in the leadership battle. Many conservatives supported changing the leadership even before Cantor was defeated, focusing their efforts instead on ousting Speaker Boehner. Now, however, they may want to give the new leaders a chance before advocating overthrowing them again. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ, 4th), may have been expressing the prevailing sentiment of the conference when he said “people wanted to at least see a change, to see a new face. There is a new face [Scalise], and Kevin [McCarthy]…identifies with people. Let’s see what [they] can do.”

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Friday, April 25, 2014

Gridlock in Congress Causes Veteran Lawmakers to Retire

It’s no secret that Americans have a low opinion of Congress. However, more and more, the august body’s own members are agreeing with their constituents, and voting with their feet. This election cycle, 36 Representatives and Senators will not run for reelection to the 114th Congress, and an additional nine members of Congress have already resigned. While this may seem like a drop in the bucket, the reason why some have chosen to leave is indicative of a feeling that has been growing within Congress: many members have realized that their public service is unproductive and underappreciated, there is little point to remaining in Congress hoping that their colleagues decide to become more agreeable, and that they can do more for their communities in other positions.

Admittedly, many have chosen to retire, not because of gridlock, but for more traditional reasons. Age has always been a concern, especially as Congress grows increasingly elderly. At the start of the 113th Congress, the average age of its members was nearly 58, while the average age of retiring members is 66. Often, they are quite a bit older, as is the case with Rep. John Dingell (D-MI, 5th), who decided it was finally time to turn in his voting card at 87. Others, like Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), choose leave due to ill health; Coburn, who is a three-time cancer survivor, suffered a relapse and announced that he would resign at the end of the current Congress to focus on recovering. Many vulnerable Representatives and Senators, such as conservative Democrats Jim Matheson (D-UT, 4th) and Mike McIntyre (D-NC, 7th), decided that one more arduous, fruitless term in Congress wasn’t worth yet another tough reelection campaign in a red district and decided to bow out gracefully instead.

However, many members’ decisions can’t be explained by old age, poor health, or a challenging reelection. Congressmen such as Jim Gerlach (R-PA, 6th), Jon Runyan (R-NJ, 3rd), John Campbell (R-CA, 45th), and Mike Rogers (R-MI, 8th) are examples of members who don’t fit this mold. Though their districts may not be the safest for Republicans, none of them were facing serious opposition, especially after redistricting before the 2012 election made their districts more darkly red. Furthermore, all four are under 60—right around the average age of members of Congress, and six years younger than the average retiring member. On the surface, the normal reasons for leaving Congress don’t seem to apply to these Representatives.

It follows, then, that gridlock could be a reason why some members, who otherwise have no obvious reason to leave Congress, could have decided to retire. In fact, some members have cited congressional dysfunction as a key reason for why they’re leaving. Runyan, for example, wrote an essay in Politico Magazine about how the battle between establishment Republicans and the Tea Party in Congress had made it difficult for him to help his constituents after Hurricane Sandy. Though he partially blamed the Republican civil war in the House for delaying the relief package that eventually passed, he castigated Republicans and Democrats in both houses for playing politics with an emergency disaster spending bill on which his district was counting. Other jaded members took it a step further; another moderate Republican, Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-LA, 5th), resigned from Congress to join Governor Bobby Jindal’s (R-LA) administration. In a statement explaining his decision, Alexander pointed directly to “legislative standstill” that made being an effective lawmaker impossible.

House Democrats have also had enough of the gridlock; Representatives George Miller (D-CA, 11th) and Henry Waxman (D-CA, 33rd), both former committee chairmen and close allies of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA, 12th), have also decided to call it quits at the end of the year. Their retirements are possibly even more telling than those of their colleagues across the aisle. They both represent two of the safest Democratic districts in the country, and though they’re members of the minority party, their roles as ranking members of committees grant them additional power and benefits well above that of any of their rank and file colleagues. Most notably, if the Democrats take back the majority this year, they would have been first in line to reclaim the committee gavels they lost in 2010. Their decisions to give up their seats in Congress could indicate that Democrats have looked at the map of House districts, which heavily favors the Republicans in many states, and have given up hope of retaking the majority until the districts can be redrawn next decade.

Clearly, for many members of Congress, it has become apparent that the costs of serving have begun to outweigh the benefits, and that they can better serve the public (and, admittedly, often themselves as well) by leaving. This is a great loss for America; not only do these lawmakers possess policy expertise that takes decades to acquire, they also have the political skills and connections necessary to pass legislation. Without these veteran legislators, it’s possible that the next Congress will become even less productive, and, beyond lowering its approval ratings, it could, for all intents and purposes, cease to function as a policymaking institution.

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Posted By: Brendan Timmons @ 11:14:58 AM

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Congress Proves It Lacks Leadership, Fails to Pass Aid Bill for Ukraine

In the wake of Ukraine’s revolution and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it’s no surprise that Congress has focused its attention on foreign policy. The grandstanding that resulted was predictable; from the hawk-like rhetoric issuing from some members of Congress, one could mistakenly assume that a new Cold War had started. “U.S. Must Take Strong Action Against Putin’s Aggression,” reads Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) op-ed in Time. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH, 8th) issued a press release titled “House Condemns Russian Aggression in Ukraine”. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) called Ukraine “the victim of a reckless expansionist policy being carried out by President Vladimir Putin.” It seems that criticism of Putin’s recent actions is about the only thing on which both parties have been able to agree. So it would make sense that members of Congress, putting aside their differences, would come together to do what they can to help Ukraine during this crisis.

Instead, legislation that includes aid for Ukraine and sanctions for Russia, though broadly supported by both parties, has foundered on the rocks of partisan bickering. The difficulty with passing what should be a slam dunk bill stems from the objection of a dozen Republican Senators to the regulation of non-profit groups and reforms to the IMF. They argue that the proposed reforms lessen America’s influence in the powerful supranational organization, while the administration and members of both parties in Congress insisted that they would have the opposite effect. The senators also take issue with new regulations by the IRS on 501(c)(4) non-profit groups’ political activities, reigniting last year’s IRS scandal. On Thursday, they blocked the bill’s swift passage in the Senate, demanding the IMF reforms be stripped from the bill and a provision delaying the regulations be included. This effectively tabled the package for now, as Congress adjourned for a ten day recess. When members return next week, it’s not even clear that a package will be able to pass both houses; the House passed a bill two weeks ago that does not include the IMF or IRS provisions. Even if the Senate’s bill passes, it will take time to reconcile the two bills, and House Republican leaders have signaled that they can only support a clean aid package.

Through its short-sightedness, Congress has left Ukraine in a lurch during its biggest national crisis in recent history. As a result, with the international community watching, America has been made to look weak, not by President Putin’s action, but by the lack of action of its own elected representatives. At a time of international turmoil, when many look to the U.S. to lead the world in preventing aggression and promoting democracy, America’s own leaders have failed to rise to the challenge. Congress should return from recess and pass the aid package for Ukraine immediately, and then continue to consider other methods by which it can help Ukraine in its time of need.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Democrats Move to Secure Baucus’ Senate Seat Ahead of November Election

When Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) announced last April that he would retire at the end of his term, Senate handicappers immediately moved his seat from the Democratic column to the Republican column. Baucus was the Democrats’ best chance of keeping Montana blue in 2014; even in a state that leans Republican, he had the edge due to incumbency, seniority in the Senate, and a large bank account. Without these advantages, and with a weak bench of statewide Democratic recruits, a Republican victory in this deeply red state was suddenly looking like a foregone conclusion. In July, Democrats’ hopes for holding the seat, and as a result, the Senate as a whole, suffered another blow when their top potential recruit, former Governor Brian Schweitzer, announced that he would not run for the seat.

However, after a series of political maneuvers and manipulations of Montana’s election laws, Democrats may be able to do the impossible: hold on to a Senate seat in a state that gave President Obama less than 42% of its vote in 2012. Baucus was appointed Ambassador to China, leaving the Senate months before his term would have expired. However, the senior Senator was not appointed to the key diplomatic post because of his impeccable foreign policy credentials. Indeed, Baucus himself said at his confirmation hearing, “I’m no real expert on China.” His nomination was nothing but a ploy by Democrats to gain the advantage in the race to fill his seat in November. By leaving the Senate early, Baucus allowed Democratic Governor Steve Bullock to appoint Lieutenant Governor John Walsh to the Senate to fill out the remainder of Baucus’ term. Walsh, who was a candidate for the open seat before Baucus’ appointment, now has a much greater chance of holding on to it in November when he runs for reelection as an incumbent.

The difference between a challenger and a Senator who has been in office just a few months may seem like an insignificant distinction, but the powers of incumbency are not to be underestimated. Upon being sworn in, Walsh will be able to start working for Montanans in Washington and helping them through constituent services immediately. Incumbent Senators receive greater attention from media outlets in their states through the work they do at their day jobs; Walsh will be able to take advantage of this attention to build his name recognition throughout the state. Members of Congress can send mail to their constituents on the taxpayers’ dime through the congressional franking privilege. Though franking is limited in an election year, Walsh may still be able to raise his profile with many of the voters of Montana by sending newsletters and other updates from his Senate office for free.

While many inside the Beltway may see this move as smart, it remains to be seen what the average Montanan will think of this patently backroom deal. To members of the political class, who have grown jaded to the gritty side of politics, tactics like these are commonplace. They are necessary to winning elections and gaining majorities in Congress, and therefore are tolerated, even celebrated at times. Maneuvering to secure a key Senate seat in a red state ahead of the midterm elections seems like the right play for Democrats. This is a tough election year for them; Republicans have a real chance to take the Senate in November. To Baucus’ former constituents, however, the manipulation of their constitutional right to representation must seem Machiavellian. Right now, months out from the election, it looks like the Democrats could be able to save a Senate seat from falling to the Republicans, but come November, it will be interesting to see how Montana’s voters react to the Dems’ machinations.

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Posted By: Brendan Timmons @ 10:12:53 AM

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Florida’s 13th Congressional District: A Rare Tossup

As 2013 comes to a close, the first session of the 113th Congress too is starting to wind down. The House has already adjourned for the year, and the Senate is expected to leave town at the end of the week. But as Washington empties out, in Florida’s vacant 13th Congressional District the race to replace late Representative C.W. Bill Young (R-FL, 13th) is only starting to heat up. With just four more weeks until the January 14 primary, the candidates will most likely be spending their holidays campaigning.

This election promises to be the most interesting congressional race since 2012. Unlike other special elections held this year in New Jersey, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Alabama, the 13th district has proven to be a true tossup. Not only do both parties have a fair shot at claiming the seat, but the crowded Republican primary is a complete crapshoot as well. A recent poll showed that two of the candidates, former Young staffer David Jolly and current Florida state representative Kathleen Peters, are in a virtual tie, with retired Marine general Mark Bircher not far behind. There is even some family drama involved; Jolly, who has worked as a lobbyist since leaving Young’s office in 2007, has the backing of Young’s widow, Beverly, while his son, Bill Young II, has endorsed Peters.

The fight for the Republican nomination has already gotten nasty; Jolly, who was initially seen as the frontrunner, faces an uphill battle due to his lobbying for defense contractors, and has been accused of carpetbagging by his opponents. The bruising intraparty contest only helps the Democratic nominee in waiting, 2010 gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink. In contrast to the GOP, the Democrats cleared the field for her, but not without some drama of their own. Groups such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and EMILY’s List, the national political action committee that helps elect pro-choice Democratic women candidates, originally supported Jessica Ehrlich, Young’s Democratic opponent in 2012. When Sink entered the race, however, they dropped Ehrlich and endorsed Sink instead. Ehrlich bitterly dropped out of the race soon after.

No matter which candidate Republican voters pick to oppose Sink, the March 11 general election will be a tough fight for both parties. Though Young held the seat for more than four decades, now that the district lacks an incumbent, Roll Call rates it as a tossup. The Democrats have an opportunity to flip this key House seat ahead of the 2014 midterm elections, and both they and the Republicans are fighting like mad to claim it.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Business Groups vs. the Tea Party: The Republican Establishment Begins to Intervene in Congressional Primaries

The Republican runoff in Alabama’s First Congressional District seemed to echo last year’s Senate primary in Texas. The establishment candidate, with the advantages of name recognition and a large war chest, was challenged by a little-known insurgent with Tea Party support. This time, however, there would be no Ted Cruz-like upset. Last Tuesday, after a crowded primary and a contentious runoff, former State Senator Bradley Byrne defeated Dean Young and won the Republican nomination to succeed former Rep. Jo Bonner (R-AL, 1st). Byrne will proceed to the December 17 special general election, where he is expected to coast to victory.

On the surface, the election results could show that voters, blaming the Tea Party for last month’s government shutdown and near default, rejected the more conservative Young and instead supported the business-friendly Byrne. This conclusion overlooks the real cause of Byrne’s victory: the Republican establishment’s heavy intervention in the race. Young, strapped for cash, couldn’t afford ads and was forced to run a grassroots campaign. Byrne received funds from congressional leaders like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA, 7th) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA, 23rd). Traditional Republican allies in the business community, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads in support of his candidacy. Overall, Byrne outraised Young two-to-one, a number that increases when money from outside groups is included.

In the past, Republican leaders, the national campaign committees, and their allied groups have declined to intervene in congressional primaries. As a result, over the past two congressional election cycles, Republicans have missed multiple opportunities to pick up seats in the Senate. In 2010, and again in 2012, flawed candidates won Republican primaries, only to lose to Democrats when voters in general elections deemed them too conservative. More recently, in Virginia and New Jersey’s gubernatorial races, voters in swing state Virginia rejected conservative state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), while in deep blue New Jersey, more moderate Governor Chris Christie (R) won reelection in a rout.

The degree to which the national Republican party intervened in Alabama’s special election is a major shift in electoral policy. The party’s increased role in deciding the Republican nominee in this election should be taken as a signal that it will no longer allow the Tea Party to dominate in primaries. The Republican establishment, responding to its allies in the business community, is in effect announcing to the conservative wing of the party that it will not tolerate any more antics that threaten to crater the global economy.

This appears to be just the beginning of national Republicans influencing local and state-wide races. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) recently announced that it would have a heavier hand in Republican primaries for the 2014 cycle. Next year, the Democrats will have to defend twenty Senate seats, five of which Roll Call lists as Toss-up, Tilts Republican or Leans Republican. If the GOP expects to recover from the shutdown debacle and pick up seats in the Senate, while defending the House, it must unite behind candidates who can win general elections. If recent events are any indication, it has already taken the first steps to do so.

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why Does Cory Booker Want to Be a U.S. Senator?

Working in Washington has arguably never been less appealing. For years, Congress hasn’t been able to pass legislation that responds to even one of the many challenges facing America. Instead, it has careened from potential disaster to potential disaster, and the current manufactured crisis over the government shutdown and debt ceiling has been the worst example of partisan bickering in recent history. As a result, Congress was recently ranked below zombies and cockroaches in public opinion polls. So why would a young, charismatic politician with good approval ratings like Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) want to sully his reputation by running for the Senate?

Booker is a rising star in the Democratic party, both within New Jersey and nationally. He is an avid user of social media; his almost 1.5 million Twitter followers outnumber the citizens of Newark over five to one. Unsurprisingly, the national media’s narrative has focused on his supposed ambitions towards the presidency. Earlier this year, he ruled out a run in 2016, but the talk of an eventual presidential campaign continues nonetheless. Booker is making a smart move by not running for president prematurely. The Democratic field in 2016 is frozen while it waits for former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to decide if she wants to run for president again. Booker could be ignoring 2016 entirely; rather than jumping into a presidential campaign so early in his career, it makes better sense for him to wait and run in 2020 or later.

Booker’s political celebrity has been compared to President Barack Obama’s national profile during the early stages of Obama’s career. In fact, several of the staffers responsible for helping Obama win the presidency are now working to bring Booker to Washington at the president’s behest. However, a smart, ambitious politician like Booker probably recognizes that he cannot directly follow in Obama’s footsteps. Obama’s political career, rapid rise to fame, and election to the presidency in 2008 were historic. His ability to organize and turn out massive numbers of supporters, many of whom rarely vote or had never voted before, was unprecedented. It will be difficult for future presidential hopefuls to replicate his success.

Instead of running for president from the Senate like Obama, it makes better sense for Booker to take a slower, more traditional path to national office. Booker should, and is possibly already planning, a run for governor of New Jersey first. He could pass on the presidential race in 2016, run for governor in 2017, and plot a run for the White House for 2020 or 2024. While many senators run for president at some point in their careers, of the past six presidents, only Obama ran successfully while simultaneously serving in the Senate. Four of the past six presidents were current or former governors when they won election. Running as a governor of a state offers several advantages over running as a United States Senator. A governor is able to campaign as a Washington outsider, and can build their reputation by being bipartisan. They can take bold stances on issues while not being pressured by congressional leaders to stick to the party line. A senator can try to build their record, but they have to persuade a majority of the other 534 members of Congress to agree with them. It’s arguably easier for a governor to accomplish their goals in the state house, which allows them to use their record as an example of good executive experience and a willingness to compromise.

If he attempts this path to the presidency, Booker still faces significant challenges. Current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) remains Booker’s most difficult obstacle. If Booker wants to be governor of New Jersey, he’ll have to wait; though Christie is up for reelection this year, Booker decided not to run against him due to Christie’s popularity within the state. The Senate is just a detour for Booker to avoid having to run against Christie, but won’t slow down his ambitions too much. It will afford him an opportunity to run in a statewide election, which will help him with his name recognition within New Jersey. If Booker strikes the right tone in the Senate while still being productive, he will set himself up nicely for both a run at the state house and a presidential run in future years.

In recent polling, Booker has a double digit lead in the October 16 special election, and will most likely be the next senator from New Jersey. If he’s smart, he’ll raise his national profile and make quite a mark on the Senate. Once he’s sworn in, he should build on his record as Newark’s mayor by reaching across the aisle and creating coalitions with Republicans. Observers in New Jersey will undoubtedly expect him to continue to make news with his legendary constituent service. Democrats and the media inside Beltway will look for him to shakeup the normally staid Senate and become one of its most outspoken liberal members. Just don’t expect him to stay for very long.

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Posted By: Brian Montrose @ 10:47:57 AM

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Napolitano Leaving DHS to Run UC System

This morning, Washington was greeted with some unexpected news: another high-ranking official is leaving the Obama Administration. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced today that she will be resigning from her position in order to take the reins at the University of California system. As part of the President's original cabinet, Napolitano served the Administration for over four years, and her departure leaves a hole in a crucial area, with the immigration debate taking center stage in Washington. While no announcements have been made regarding her potential replacements, a nominee will likely be chosen soon in order to facilitate any potential reform efforts on the immigration front.

Napolitano's departure, which will occur in early September, came as a bit of a surprise, as she is seen as an up-and-comer in national Democratic political circles. There had been talk of her replacing Attorney General Eric Holder if he were to depart, taking a seat on the Supreme Court, or even a taking a long-shot chance as a presidential candidate. Her new position as the head of the nation's largest state university system doesn't preclude a political future, but it would be hard to accomplish once she leaves the national stage. While she has no experience with education or academia, the regents of the system hope to use her experience in the Administration to boost their connections with the federal government. She will take the reins of a system in crisis, plagued with seemingly runaway tuition costs and budgetary issues.

The announcement's timing is great for a university system whose academic year will begin shortly, but less than ideal for the Administration, with immigration taking so much focus in Washington right now. The Senate's recent passage of a comprehensive reform bill placed a burden on Republicans in the House to respond in kind. Even former President W. Bush joined the push for reform, albeit in a non-partisan fashion. While the House Republicans have made it clear they won't be embracing the changes approved by their colleagues in the upper chamber, they are in the process of drafting a bill that would address the issue. The draft would deal with the status of children brought to this country by illegal immigrant parents, but would fall far short of the comprehensive legislation that many interested parties are hoping for. Since Homeland Security would be greatly affected by any changes in the immigration law, it would only help to have the Department's leadership firmly in place.

Nobody has been officially tapped to replace Napolitano but a couple of officials are reportedly being considered. Craig Fugate, who currently leads the Federal Emergency Management Agency, could be ideal. He's got bipartisan appeal, having worked under Republican governors in Florida, and he's been praised for his work in revamping FEMA after its disastrous performance in response to Hurricane Katrina. As an emergency management expert, though, he may not have the experience with immigration that might be necessary at this point. There's also Transportation Security Administration's John Pistole. Pistole has more law enforcement experience, having previously worked at the FBI, and he has good relations with Congress. TSA doesn't have quite the reputation as FEMA right now, though, with many feathers ruffled over its airport screening policies. Whoever is picked, they'll be expected to hit the ground running as immigration reform isn't likely to disappear from anyone's radar any time soon.

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Posted By: Brian Montrose @ 1:24:56 PM

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Friday, June 28, 2013

All Eyes on the House After Senate Passes Immigration Reform

Yesterday, after months of debate and with the help of the bipartisan Gang of Eight, the Senate voted to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, the first of its kind in decades. The measure garnered 68 votes, including 14 from Republicans, easily clearing the hurdle of a cloture vote and shifting the focus of the debate onto the GOP-controlled House. The Senate's vote has earned praise from various immigrants' rights groups and even the government of Mexico, although even its strongest supporters admit that it is somewhat imperfect. While this is a major step in reforming the nation's immigration system, it will likely undergo substantial alterations once the House addresses the issue. Whether or not that is enough to stop any bill from making it to the President's desk for signing remains to be seen.

The landmark bill would change the nation's immigration system in a number of ways, including an overhaul of the system of labor visas, a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally, and steps to boost border security. The latter two items have generated a great deal of controversy: Republicans are largely opposed to the idea of guiding some 11 million immigrants down a path to citizenship, or "amnesty," and they also argue that border security is paramount and the current bill doesn't do enough to address it. In order to overcome at least some of these concerns, the Senate passed an amendment on Wednesday that would add 20,000 new border patrol agents to the southern border and finish construction on 700 miles of fence.

While there is still plenty of time for the House to debate the issue and hammer out a compromise bill of their own, some fear that this may prove impossible in the current Congress--especially after House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH-8th) stated that he will not put forth a plan that doesn't have the backing of a majority of House Republicans. The Senators who voted for the bill hoped that they could gather enough votes to send a message to their colleagues in the lower chamber that there is broad support for the measure. While 68 is a strong showing, especially in this political climate where it's a struggle to get 60 votes, they were hoping for 70. Opponents of the bill jumped on the fact that they fell short and point to this fact as indicative of the low level of support it enjoys. Whether it will ultimately matter to many House Republicans who are staunchly opposed to the path to citizenship is uncertain.

Thursday's bill passage has resulted in joyful celebration for many people who will be ultimately affected by it, evidenced by the heavy crowd that watched the vote from the gallery which included 100 people brought to this country as children by their illegal immigrant parents. The Republicans in the House who appear to be resisting the bill face a lot of political pressure to vote on something. After dismal performances in the last few election cycles when it comes to Hispanic voting populations, the GOP is in need of a boost among that ethnic group. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who was one of the strongest Republican proponents of the bill, is acutely aware of that. His popularity and potential White House bid give him some clout in his party, but the House Republicans have been notoriously difficult to get under control for the last few years. Boehner and company have a tough task ahead of them. Not only do they need to come up with a bill of their own, but it must be similar enough to the one passed by the Senate to make it through a conference committee and eventually to the President's desk. If they pass something that is grossly out of proportion to the Senate's version, it may be as pointless as passing nothing at all. Their tight-rope act involves placating their base while also reaching out to the sizable Hispanic minority.

Some supporters expressed reservations about the bill, but admit that some progress is better than none, which is what has been the result for the past quarter century. If Congress manages to pass comprehensive immigration reform by year's end, they will pleasantly surprise many people who have come to expect little, if anything, out of their elected representatives. If they don't, the status quo will continue, and a generation of immigrants waiting for citizenship will be further disillusioned by the government of their chosen home.

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Posted By: Brian Montrose @ 5:28:18 PM

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Abortion Debate Proves to be Fertile Ground for GOP Gaffes

With the Senate on the verge of (probably) passing a sweeping immigration bill and the Obama Administration facing questions about actions of the intelligence community, there are some major issues being debated around Washington. In the House, they've been focusing on a classic culture-war lightning rod. GOP representatives have put together and passed a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. The discussion of the bill has provided plenty of fodder for folks in the media, with members making predictably controversial statements. While the bill has no chance of making it through the Senate or across the President's desk, it shows that the Republicans are still eager to embrace these kinds of issues in order to grow support among their base. Whether this is successful, or only serves to further alienate them from mainstream voters, remains to be seen.

The bill, which is called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, was sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ, 8th) and dials back the clock a bit on when an abortion is legal. It proposes a 20 week limit, based on the idea that fetuses can feel pain around that period. Current law has the limit around 23 to 24 weeks, based on the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade. The bill passed the House with somewhat predictable numbers: 228-196, with a few Republicans dissenting and a handful of Democrats jumping on board. The results of the vote are hardly surprising, but the existence of the bill itself has some Washington observers scratching their heads over why it was brought up to begin with. While abortion is a hot-button issue that is a great way to drum up support on the fringes of each party, it isn't as if Republicans are suffering in the eyes of the far right, and there is no impending election in which their support will be needed in high numbers. If anything, it may only serve to turn off those in the middle who are not as receptive to divisive cultural issues.

That type of alienation seems even more due to some truly tone-deaf comments made by Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX, 26th) during a Rules Committee hearing. The Texas Congressman asserts that he knows fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks because some fetuses reportedly masturbate as early as 15 weeks into their existence. The provocative remarks drew the expected level of criticism, some based on taste but others based more on scientific accuracy. While there is at least one study that involves prenatal pleasure-seeking, it doesn't exactly support Burgess's assertion, as the fetuses in question were closer to 30 weeks than 15. This makes sense since most fetuses are about four inches long at 15 weeks. Burgess's bizarre comments would have been germane if discussing a ban on late-term abortions, but pointless when dealing with the 20 week ban. Even if they touched on a legitimate issue, the comments are unexpected and just the kind of thing the GOP doesn't need when attempting to be taken seriously on such a major issue.

This isn't the first such confusing comment that Republican Congressfolks have confronted in recent times. As House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH, 8th) has tried to keep his caucus in line, members seem bent on sticking their feet in their mouths. In the context of abortions, members have tried to distinguish between "legitimate" rape and other kinds and engaged in arguments that very few pregnancies come about because of sexual assaults anyway. The comments branch out to other topics, as well, with one lawmaker using the term "wetback" during a radio show and another lamenting the fact that women have entered into the workforce rather than remaining home. The intended audience for these remarks may not mind their substance, but for the majority of Americans they show that the speakers are out of touch at best.

For Boehner and other GOP leaders, getting the party members in line and on the same page is a lot like herding cats. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop their opponents from linking these comments to the party as a whole. With every errant remark, the Republicans appear to be hurting their chances at taking back the White House or the Senate. Of course, there's a chance that these gaffes will be forgotten by the next election cycle and will be nothing but hot air dissipated in the political atmosphere.

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Posted By: Brian Montrose @ 2:26:30 PM

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Following Leaks, Congress Turns Its Eye on Leaker, NSA

The nation's intelligence community was rocked earlier this week when a former defense contractor and intelligence analyst admitted to leaking details about a secret National Security Agency program of spying, with potential targets including millions of Americans. The whistleblower, Edward Snowden, left Hawaii in late May and is now in Hong Kong, where officials are considering whether or not to extradite him, pending request from the United States government. While privacy-rights advocates have lauded his actions, the developments have resulted in a round of condemnation from government officials, with some folks in Congress calling his actions treasonous and demanding his extradition. Others have taken the events as a chance to draw attention to the issue of surveillance, and whether or not the federal government currently goes too far in its efforts to gather intelligence, particularly on American citizens.

The 29 year old Snowden has worked for years at various intelligence organizations, including the CIA and Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest private defense contractors. During his career he gained access to volumes of classified information, and recently leaked some of it to the Guardian. That information contains details about programs designed for massive levels of surveillance of millions of people with the cooperation of major corporations. According to Snowden, he leaked the documents after he became disillusioned with the level of surveillance the United States government conducts and decided that the public had a right to know to what extent they were being spied on. The leaks are the latest in a long line of whistleblowing, including the infamous Pentagon Papers and recent efforts by Bradley Manning and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Civil liberty-focused groups have praised Snowden, calling him courageous and his efforts invaluable in drawing attention to large-scale violations of privacy. Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who originally leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 called the leak potentially the most important in American history.

That hasn't stopped folks in the establishment from excoriating Snowden for his actions, calling him traitorous and demanding that Hong Kong release him to American custody. Congressfolks from both sides of the aisle have joined in the chorus, with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz echoing House Speaker Jon Boehner (R-OH, 8th) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) in their condemnation. The Washington press has been even more fierce in its assessment of the situation, with some columnists resorting to attacks on Snowden's character. The reaction is unsurprising, as the intelligence and national security communities are some of the highest-regarded institutions among Washington insiders. If Snowden was expecting a warm embrace, akin to the support given to Ellsberg by then-Senator Mike Gravel, he was sorely mistaken.

That isn't to say that everyone in power is focusing on Snowden's role. Some members of Congress have taken the leaks as an opportunity to turn the spotlight on issues with the intelligence community and its habits of spying. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is demanding answers from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Clapper appeared in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee in March and told Wyden that the government is not engaged in espionage targeting law abiding Americans. Since Snowden's leaks appear to contradict that assertion, Wyden is calling for public hearings on the matter. While he isn't quite championing Snowden's cause, as Gravel did for Ellsberg, it appears that some people on the Hill at least appreciate the information coming to light.

For the time being, the Obama Administration has not acted on the situation, referring the case to the Justice Department and issuing a brief statement. Officials in Hong Kong have cooperated with U.S. government officials, but have not decided to extradite Snowden. He may decide to seek asylum, but is unlikely to find a permanent refuge in Hong Kong. For now, the Obama Administration will assess the situation and try to ameliorate any embarrassment facing the United States. Whether or not these leaks will impact future policy remains unclear, especially without a consensus on public opinion. Americans are unlikely to be pleased with the situation, however, especially when millions of law-abiding citizens find out they've been spied on.

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Posted By: Brian Montrose @ 5:28:05 PM

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Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Obama Promotes Two to Foreign Policy Posts

Earlier today, President Obama announced that the current top National Security Adviser, Tom Donilon, will be resigning from his post and that Susan Rice, the current Ambassador to the United Nations, will be appointed to replace him. The Administration also announced that Samantha Power will be nominated to replace Rice in her ambassadorial role. This shakeup has caused rampant speculation on topics ranging from last year's attack on the embassy in Benghazi to the nation's current policy on the situation in Syria. While the moves may signal changes in the Administration's current foreign policy, it remains to be seen whether anything substantial occurs once the two take their positions.

Tom Donilon has been with President Obama since day one, serving as the head National Security Adviser for over four years, and after such a long term of service, few observers are surprised at his decision to step down. In that time, he caused some friction within the Administration, often providing advice contrary to that given by the Pentagon's top brass. During his tenure, Donilon was key to the design and implementation of the President's counterterrorism strategy, including the raid that targeted and killed Osama bin Ladin. He's perhaps best known for his efforts to steer the nation's foreign policy focus toward Asia. In fact, Donilon will remain in his position until July, leaving after the completion of a summit meeting between President Obama and China's President, Xi Jinping.

The President's choice to replace Donilon has already ruffled some feathers, although the lack of need for Senate confirmation of the position makes that point largely moot. Susan Rice brings plenty of baggage with her, as she was originally considered as a replacement for the departing Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State. Rice withdrew her name from consideration, however, after a firestorm of controversy erupted around her involvement in the aftermath of the Benghazi embassy raid. Shortly after the attack, Rice pushed the story that it came about in response to anger over a YouTube video that depicted Islam in an unfavorable light. This explanation was later retracted once it became clear that the attack was planned by an organized terrorist cell. The retraction gave rise to the belief that the Administration had attempted a coverup of the events surrounding Benghazi and earned Rice the ire of Congressional Republicans. Despite all this controversy, the President values Rice enough to keep her on the team, placing her in a high position that does not require the support of Republicans in the Senate.

Rice's replacement, however, will need the approval of the Senate in order to take over as Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power is an author and human rights expert, who is perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide." She was also an adviser in the Obama White House, although she left her position earlier this year. In the past Power has shown that she is unafraid to speak her mind, reportedly calling Hilary Clinton a "monster," which has caused some concern that she may not be the best choice for a diplomatic position. Still, her often first-hand experience with human rights issues shows that the Administration is making them a central focus of its foreign policy.

These two personnel changes at high positions in the foreign policy arena have caused some to speculate about President Obama's plans for Syria. Both picks are known for their inclination towards liberal interventionism in humanitarian crises. Rice is quoted as saying that, after the Rwandan genocides of 1994, "dramatic action" is preferable, and Power's feelings on the matter are well documented in her books. With reports of chemical weapons being used by both sides in the Syrian conflict, it would seem that the two advisers would promote action. However, there's reason to believe that little will change when it comes to the Administration's policies toward Syria. The political realities haven't changed, and the options facing the United States are still unpalatable, to say the least. Even if they strongly push for intervention, it's unlikely to sway the ultimate decision maker. That isn't to say that their advice will be ignored, but the President hasn't embraced action thus far, and is unlikely to do so going forward. Whether that's true of potential future crises, like the one that appears to be brewing in Turkey, is a different story.

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Posted By: Brian Montrose @ 4:36:10 PM

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At Leadership Directories, all information in our database is verified at the source. In the course of our work, we come across various whispers, musings, chatter, and rumors from the Hill. We bring you those rumors here. When verified, they will be reflected in Leadership® Online.

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