Best, worst years in Washington

Few elected officials in Washington had a particularly good 2013.

A divided Congress bickered for most of the year, shut down the government in October and saw its approval rating hover near record lows.

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President Obama, fresh off his reelection, failed to win passage of either of his major domestic priorities — gun control and immigration — and his own popularity sank with the botched rollout of his signature healthcare law.

Only a year-end budget agreement saved the capital from complete gridlock.

So, who had the best and worst years on Capitol Hill? The two lead budget negotiators took top honors, while a cocaine bust guaranteed infamy for one freshman Republican 

BEST

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

Murray, the fourth-ranking Senate Democrat, had two significant accomplishments in 2013. The first was winning passage of a budget resolution in the first place; it was the first to pass the Senate in four years, a drought that had drawn considerable criticism from Republicans.

In December, Murray partnered with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to strike a two-year budget agreement that replaced a portion of the sequestration spending cuts decried by both parties. While modest in scope, the deal was a ceasefire in the Capitol budget wars, and Murray was able to win unanimous support from Senate Democrats.

On the whole, a year after helping to expand the Democratic majority against the odds as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2012, Murray solidified her position as a party leader.

2) Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)

Ryan kept a low profile at the beginning of the year after losing his bid for the vice presidency. But he managed to pass his conservative budget proposal through the Republican-led House for the third year in a row in April, and he worked behind the scenes to help Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hash out strategies that could win support from conservatives.

Ryan’s big victory came in December with the two-year budget pact he negotiated with Murray. While he took a hit from conservatives, Ryan won an overwhelming 332-94 vote in the House, including more than two-thirds of Republicans. The win demonstrated his clout within the Republican conference, and it re-established him as a national force in the party. It also gave him his first significant legislative accomplishment.

3) Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

A good argument could be made to put the polarizing Cruz on the other half of this list.

After all, he helped orchestrate a government shutdown that damaged the Republican Party and alienated many of his colleagues. Yet the episode showed that less than a year into his time in the Senate, Cruz is nothing if not relevant. He ends 2013 as a household name with a devoted following of conservative activists that could serve him well if he runs for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

4) Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Warren spent her first year in the Senate taking the opposite path from fellow freshman Cruz in just about every way.

The Massachusetts liberal staged no around-the-clock filibusters, picked few fights with party leaders and rarely even spoke to reporters in the hallway.

But when she did speak, people listened. Videos of her grilling bank regulators at a Senate hearing and castigating Republicans on the Senate floor — each less than five minutes long — went viral. And by the end of the year, progressive activists were talking her up as a potential challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Warren quickly squashed that speculation, but she heads into his second year in the Senate as the capital’s foremost populist voice.

5) Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)

The veteran Oregon Democrat got a plum Christmas promotion when news broke that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) would be leaving his post as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to become ambassador to China. Wyden is all but assured to take the gavel, putting him at the center of the long-running effort to reshape the tax code and entitlement programs. Wyden had already had a successful year by leading the charge for more transparency in the U.S. intelligence agencies and for reining in the National Security Agency.

 

HONORABLE MENTION

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — Her campaign to crack down on sexual assault in the military won policy changes and glowing media coverage.

 

WORST

1) Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.)

A former television reporter, Radel had shown some promise in his first year in the House as a conservative who could relate to young people. Then he got busted for cocaine possession. Radel got caught in a federal sting, pleaded guilty and took a leave of absence in November to enter rehab in Florida. Local Republican officials called for his resignation, and while Radel appeared intent on staying in office, his political career could be over before it ever really got going.

2) Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)

Rubio began 2013 as the GOP’s star-of-the-moment, a conservative aligned with the Tea Party who would bolster his legislative resume and his bipartisan credentials by helping to pass an immigration overhaul through Congress. Rubio succeeded for much of the first half of the year, and after joining the Gang of Eight he helped pass its comprehensive immigration bill through with 68 votes by the end of June. 

But the Florida Republican took significant fire from conservatives, and over the summer and fall, he appeared to be backing away from the legislation he co-authored. He made no attempt to win support from House Republicans for the bill and at one point suggested the House should not even use the proposal to negotiate a compromise in a conference committee.

Rubio’s attempts to win back conservative support by taking strong stands against abortion and ObamaCare largely fell flat, and by the end of the year he had been eclipsed by fellow Sens. Cruz and Rand Paul (Ky.), and by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as the most buzzed-about early contenders for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

3) Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.)

Camp, the chairman of the House Means and Committee, made a bold declaration as 2012 came to a close: One way or another, he said, the panel would pass a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code in 2013. That never happened. While Camp made steady progress throughout the year, unfavorable budget projections and resistance from the party leadership prevented him from advancing tax reform through the committee. 

An even bigger hit for Camp came with the departure of Baucus, who announced his intention to retire in the middle of 2013 and then headed for a much earlier exit when he accepted the nomination of ambassador to China in December. Camp and Baucus had worked on tax reform together for years, but Baucus’s departure is the end of the bipartisan effort that had already faced long odds. Camp will likely have to leave his post at the end of 2014 because of Republican-imposed term limits, and Ryan has already announced his desire to replace him and carry on the tax reform effort.

4) Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.)

Baucus ended the year on a bright note with his nomination by Obama as ambassador to China, but it was a frustrating 2013 overall for him. His own legacy bid for a tax overhaul got virtually no support from party leaders, and his decision to retire from the Senate was seen as acknowledgment that he would have had a tough time winning reelection in 2014 anyway. Never a favorite of party leaders, he infuriated them with his (now-prescient) warning that the implementation of the healthcare law he helped write would be a “train wreck.” The remark, which Baucus said was an intended wake-up call, provided Republicans with a talking point for months.

5) Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)

The longtime California senator took up the mantle of gun control after the shooting massacre late in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. But despite an aggressive push, new restrictions on guns fell short in the Senate and went nowhere in the House. Feinstein’s signature priority, reinstituting the ban on assault weapons, won just 40 votes in the Democratic-led Senate. 

Feinstein, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, has also been the most vocal Democratic defender of the National Security Agency and its surveillance programs, but her position has put her increasingly at odds with public opinion, which is moving strongly in favor of limits on spying.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) — The House Democrat lost $18 million in a fraud scheme.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) — The immigration reform advocate had another frustrating year with no action in the House on his signature issue.