Democrats down but not out: Senators to watch in the incoming Congress

Democrats will control the Senate in the 112th Congress but lawmakers and aides expect a different power dynamic with Republicans in control of 47 seats.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) will take a bigger role in crafting the floor strategy, and freshman Republicans are poised to take over the role Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has played in challenging the Senate GOP leadership.

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Here are some of the key Senate players in the 112th Congress:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

Reid will continue in his role as the most powerful member of the Senate, but he will not have the same leverage as he enjoyed in the 111th Congress. He will set the agenda, like in 2010, but will count only 53 lawmakers in his caucus (including independent Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Vermont's Bernie Sanders). With 23 Democratic-controlled seats up for reelection in 2012, Reid will have to worry about defections within his conference to Republican-sponsored legislation passed by the House.

Reid does not plan to only play defense, according to Senate Democratic aides. He will try to pick up the seven to 10 Republican votes he needs to pass bipartisan legislation and put pressure on House Republicans. Democratic aides say incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will look like an obstructionist if he shelves bipartisan legislation in the lower chamber.

Some Democratic aides argue it will be easier for Reid to pick up Republican votes in the 112th Congress. Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) will have freer rein to support Democratic bills, knowing their votes alone won’t make the difference. Democrats reason that if Snowe, Collins and other centrists can be persuaded to join, it will be easier to convince more conservative members to follow them.

Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)

Schumer will set the broad political narrative for the Senate Democrats heading into the 2012 election, leading a new office in charge of coordinating the political message with bills Reid brings to the floor. Reid will listen to Schumer’s advice on what comes to the floor and when, to ensure the legislative agenda is one that vulnerable incumbents can use to play offense on the campaign trail.

Schumer gave a preview of his 112th strategy during Senate debate over the 9/11 healthcare bill. He persuaded Reid to bring it back to the floor for a second vote after Republicans blocked it on Dec. 9 and used the intervening weeks to build a public chorus of support.

Schumer will look for other legislation that will play well in the media and give Democrats rhetorical ammunition against Republicans.

Schumer’s mantra has been “jobs, jobs, jobs” and focusing on the middle class. His task will be to ensure that middle-class voters don’t get overlooked in the perennial debate over tax cuts for the wealthy and federal aid for the working poor.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)

Durbin could emerge as a pivotal player in the debate over reducing the federal deficit. As a member of President Obama’s fiscal commission, Durbin supported the proposal advanced by co-chairman Erskine Bowles (D) and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.).

Durbin would be the key to persuading liberal members of the Democratic conference to support a deficit reduction deal that includes significant spending cuts and entitlement reforms. He supported the commission report to ensure that progressives would have a seat at the table in deficit negotiations.

Durbin also plans to be active in overseeing the implementation of Wall Street reform, particularly on consumer protection issues.

Also expect Durbin to play an active role on human rights issues as chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on human rights and the law.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.)

Baucus is at the center of every tax debate in the Senate, and could make or break the possibility of a grand bipartisan bargain on deficit reduction and tax reform. Baucus has already held hearings on tax reform but was skeptical of the fiscal commission's plan to slash discretionary spending, reform entitlement programs and overhaul the tax code. He was the only Senate Democrat on Obama’s commission to vote against the co-chairmen’s proposal.

If he attempts to reach a bipartisan deal on deficit reduction, it would be difficult to move it through the Senate.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

Bennet won one of the toughest Senate reelections of 2010 and earned new respect for his political toughness and instincts. He turned down an offer to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to concentrate on legislating.

Democratic aides expect Bennet to portray himself as a post-partisan legislator focused on problem solving. His desire for bipartisan compromise and his expertise on education issues could make him a pivotal player when the No Child Left Behind Act comes up for reauthorization in 2011. Bennet served as superintendent of Denver’s public schools before joining the Senate in 2009.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.)

Warner also turned down a chance to run the Senate Democrats’ campaign operation so he could continue his behind-the-scenes role as a bipartisan dealmaker. Warner spent countless hours negotiating with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) on financial regulatory reform in 2010 and helped build Republican support for the legislation, even though Corker ultimately opposed it.

Warner has partnered with Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) to build bipartisan support for a sweeping deficit reduction deal. Warner and Chambliss have convened bipartisan chat sessions with colleagues since the summer to explore proposals that could serve as the basis for a future deal. Warner represents a conservative leaning state, and jittery Democratic incumbents who are up for reelection are likely to trust his political instincts.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.)

McConnell negotiated an $858 billion tax-relief package with Obama during the lame-duck session and is expected to take a leading role in summit talks to cut the deficit and reform taxes.

Obama and Reid tried to work around McConnell for most of the 111th Congress, ignoring him while trying to pick off centrists in his caucus. Now that Republicans control 47 seats, Democrats will have to deal much more directly with the GOP leader.

Many analysts predict partisan gridlock for the 112th Congress, but McConnell has expressed hope for entitlement reform, one of the most divisive and difficult issues facing policymakers.

McConnell has observed that neither party can tackle entitlements by itself — with Republicans in control of the House and Democrats holding the Senate and White House, the government is divided, and McConnell thinks that’s the right environment for sweeping reform.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.)

Kyl raised his Senate profile in recent weeks: McConnell appointed him to represent Senate Republicans in the so-called “Six Pack” negotiations with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House budget director Jack Lew over the expiring Bush tax cuts.

Kyl won a major victory by pushing Obama to set the estate tax at 35 percent and limiting it to individual inheritances above $5 million — the concession that many liberal Democrats found most objectionable.

But Kyl suffered a setback in December when he led Senate GOP opposition to the New START nuclear arms treaty. Kyl repeatedly raised concerns against the treaty, but 13 Republicans voted for it.

As a senior member of the Finance Committee, Kyl will have a major say on tax reform, but the White House may view him warily as a negotiating partner after he declined to support START, even after receiving numerous concessions.

Senate Republican Steering Committee Chairman Jim DeMint (R-S.C.)

DeMint has taken an outspoken public role over the past two years obstructing the Democratic legislative agenda and, at times, challenging his own leadership, such as on the issue of earmark reform.

DeMint helped elect a new class of conservatives to the Senate and will work closely with them to oppose legislation that adds to the federal deficit or raises taxes, posing a potentially serious obstacle to a broad deal on deficit reduction.

DeMint was one of the few Republicans to oppose the $858 billion tax relief and unemployment benefits package that passed Congress in December, arguing that it would raise taxes on inheritances.

With newly elected allies such as incoming Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) helping him next year, expect DeMint to take more of a behind-the-scenes role.

“He’s focused on helping these new conservatives establish themselves,” said a Senate Republican aide. “If it’s a choice between him leading or them leading and DeMint playing a supportive role, he’d prefer the latter.”

Incoming Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah)

Paul and Lee don’t have the national status of fellow incoming Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has been mentioned as a future presidential or vice-presidential candidate. But Paul and Lee are expected by some Republican aides to have a bigger impact in the 112th Congress.

Both are expected to represent the agenda of Tea Party voters and push for immediate and dramatic changes to the way Congress does business. They are expected to fill the role DeMint played in the 111th Congress and use every tactic available to slow the Democratic agenda or force vulnerable Democrats to take tough votes on taxes and spending.

Paul has said he will try to attach spending cuts to every piece of major legislation that comes before the Senate.

Lee played an active behind-the-scenes role lobbying Senate Republicans to adopt a conference-wide earmark ban after the election.

GOP aides expect Paul to carry the Senate conservatives’ message to the media and Lee to focus on the tactics of the Senate floor.

“I think Rand Paul is going to be the biggest standout; he’s fearless and he’s going to be aggressive,” said a Republican aide.