Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) will be on a bigger political stage but could lose influence – at least in the near-term – if he wins election to the Senate.
A victory would vault Markey from the GOP-controlled House back into the majority, at least for now, and give him a new stage in his years-long advocacy for tougher steps to combat global warming.
Several experts say a seat in the upper chamber will ultimately expand Markey’s clout. But, in the short run, it could also create new constraints for the 20-term House member — who would suddenly be a freshman again.
It will be a different world.
Markey has held leading House committee spots, giving the colorful lawmaker a direct line of fire at oil company executives, a leading role on major bills and staff to generate a steady stream of committee reports.
In the Senate, where he would fill out the remaining 18 months of Kerry’s term and face reelection in 2014, Markey could have trouble getting an immediate seat on the Energy or Environment committees.
Julian Zelizer, a public affairs professor at Princeton University, said Markey could lose some status in the short-term – but that ultimately he’s poised for more political power.
“Unless the Democratic leadership wants to fast track him, then he will lose some committee status, for sure. However, the Senate offers some benefits beyond committee rank, including a national forum, more press attention, and greater power within the chamber (given smaller numbers and the filibuster),” he said in an email.
“Therefore, what he might lose in the short term would be compensated in other ways and give him greater clout to press on issues like climate change,” Zelizer said.
But Markey, if he wins, would leave behind a chamber that gave him an array of avenues to make his mark on climate change and green energy.
Beginning in 2007 and through 2010, when Democrats lost House control, Markey chaired the now-disbanded Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming and helped steer cap and trade legislation through the House in 2009. The bill died in the Senate.
He’s also a top member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. And since Republicans regained the House in 2010, Markey has been the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, where he’s been a foil to the pro-drilling Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.).
“If Markey wins, he'll be a smaller fish in a bigger pond as a freshman senator without the luxuries of key committee assignments and top operatives that he has become used to in the House,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former House and Senate GOP leadership aide.
An immediate question is where Markey would fit into the Senate’s committee structure.
Interim Sen. Mo Cowan (D-Mass.), who stepped into Kerry’s vacated seat, sits on the Agriculture, Commerce and Small Business committees.
Those panels offer some chances to work on climate and energy but don’t have primary jurisdiction over the Environmental Protection Agency; the Energy Department; or the Interior Department, the agency in charge of oil and gas drilling policy.
Markey, at least until the next Congress, could face a tough time landing on the Environment and Public Works Committee or the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
A Democrat would have to agree to step aside to create room for Markey, or Senate Republicans would have to agree to an expanded Democratic margin on one of those panels. That’s probably not likely.
A campaign spokeswoman, in a statement, declined to address whether Markey would quickly seek a spot on the Environment or Energy committees.
Spokeswoman Giselle Barry instead said that if elected, Markey will use his committee assignments to work for good jobs for Massachusetts; education and infrastructure investments, gun control, immigration reform and addressing climate change.
But political observers say committee roles only matter to a degree in the Senate, especially at a time when so-called regular order is often not the norm, and legislative battles on climate change are being waged over appropriations riders and other amendments.
The odds of Senate Democratic leadership pushing a major climate bill appear low in the near future.
That means lots of the work on climate is about creating political space for tougher executive actions and fighting off GOP-led amendments to block EPA rules.
“The old saw in Washington is that in the House, all the work is done in committee and in the Senate, all the work is done on the floor,” said Gerard Waldron, a former top House aide to Markey.
“All of the key debates on the Senate side in the last five years on climate change and greenhouse gas regulation have all taken place on the floor,” added Waldron, now a partner at Covington & Burling LLP.
And when major legislation is possible in the Senate, coalitions often pop up that include people who aren’t on the primary committee of jurisdiction.
Indeed, several members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight now pushing immigration reform are not on the Judiciary Committee.
“It is always better to be on the committee of jurisdiction, but the fact of the matter is being a senator still gives you a big platform to try and advance your agenda no matter what committee you are on,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who is now a senior director with QGA Public Affairs.
One question is how long Markey, if he wins, will be able to enjoy life back in the majority.
The wave of retirement announcements from red state Senate Democrats will give Republicans a good shot at regaining Senate control in 2014 (when Markey would presumably run again if he wins next month’s special election).
Darrell West, a Capitol Hill expert with the Brookings Institution, said Markey’s influence will depend in part on whether Democrats can hold their majority in the upper chamber.
He notes that, as a member of the House minority, Markey’s currently in a “weak position” from which to seek hearings and push bills.
“He would increase his power base if he wins a Senate seat and Democrats have a majority. That would put him in a position whether he can influence bills.” West said, noting his ability to influence legislation.
“But if he ends up in the Senate minority, it will be much harder for him to affect climate change and other issues in the environmental area,” added West, who is vice president and director of the Governance Studies program at Brookings.