TWO THUMBS UP
Jeff Flake (R-AZ)
Freshman Sen. Jeff Flake started off the new Congress in good shape when he was given a post on the prestigious Judiciary Committee. Additionally, he was selected as one of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” members tasked with solving immigration reform. Flake is a former six-term member of the U.S. House whose previous experience gives him a unique perspective on how the “Gang” can create legislation that is workable for the more conservative members of the House. Flake has taken a behind-the-scenes role, allowing fellow Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) to take most of the limelight. Rubio has had to walk a tightrope, balancing the need for meaningful reform and his ambitions for higher office. Flake is able to speak publicly about the process in ways Rubio cannot. Flake has always marched to the beat of his own drum, and has shown no qualms with supporting issues that aren’t always in line with the establishment, which has added significant value to immigration and other debates.
Mark Warner (D-VA)
Mark Warner is serving the final two years of his first term as Senator from Virginia. His ratings in Virginia are high and he remains a popular Democrat in the Senate. Although up for reelection in 2014, Warner looks to be very comfortable in holding onto his seat. As a result, Warner has continued in his fight, or what he calls “obsession” with reducing the deficit. Recently, balancing the budget has taken a back seat to more high profile issues like immigration and gun control. Even Republicans have eased off the issue in an attempt to seem more compassionate and advocate for human interests, not just budget interests. Yet Warner has continued the effort to solve the country’s debt crisis in a balanced approach, and continues to advocate for reform at nearly every public opportunity. While others have been distracted by political tides and more media-driven, popular issues, Warner has stayed true to his beliefs fighting for fiscal reform.
Rand Paul (R-KY)
There’s a lot to be said about Sen. Rand Paul. He’s made significant headlines this year providing the Tea Party response to the President’s State of the Union speech, winning CPAC’s straw poll, and filibustering the Senate floor 13 hours during the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan. The filibuster became a trending topic on Twitter as the hash tag #StandWithRand went viral. In recent years, Paul has often been lumped in the same category as his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), as someone contributing to the debate, but not anyone to be taken seriously. But after the first three months of 2013, it’s fair to say Paul has squashed that reputation. He has proven himself to be aggressive, savvy and candid on his positions. Paul’s coveted alliance with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks more to his political wiles than winning CPAC’s straw poll. McConnell backed Paul’s opponent during his Senate primary election potentially creating a divisive relationship for both Kentucky senators. But now Paul’s top campaign strategist is working for McConnell’s reelection campaign in 2014 further deepening their friendship. Despite the personal growth shown in recent months, Paul is still relatively new to the political scene, only being elected in 2010, and still remains largely untested. However, if there is one thing to know about Rand Paul moving forward – he is not to be underestimated.
(R-ND) Heidi Heitkamp starts off the 113th Congress as a freshman Senator from a state Mitt Romney won by twenty points. She defeated Rep. Rick Berg (R) by less than 3,000 votes in a highly competitive election. Heitkamp proved herself to be a tenacious campaigner and has carried that trait with her to Washington, D.C. Since being in Congress she’s made an effort to make connections with all necessary interest groups on agriculture and energy sectors (regardless of political leaning) to make sure she’s representing what’s best for North Dakota. She truly represents her home state and not a political party or presidential agenda. She has shown herself to be a North Dakotan first and a Democratic Senator second. In her first few months on the job, she’s taken criticism from groups all across the political spectrum on a variety of issues, e.g. the Keystone Pipeline. This is a good sign she’s doing something right.
ONE THUMB UP & ONE THUMB DOWN
Ted Cruz (R-TX)
Sen. Ted Cruz could fall into either of these categories depending on one’s point of view. Cruz’s victory as an underdog in the Texas primary last year showed that he had a lot of potential to be a leader in Congress. He is respected as an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful legal mind with experience clerking for former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist. He’s known for going against the grain and is not afraid of what people think. Cruz was clearly in an enviable position arriving to Washington, D.C. this year. He’d earned considerable political capital on the campaign trail, but much of it has been unnecessarily squandered due to his lack of respect for elder Senators, process, tradition and decorum that are part of being in the Senate. Cruz said he was coming to the Washington to shake things up, and to be fair he has done just that. But the U.S. Congress is a place where you keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Having little respect for those who have a different political philosophy won’t allow you to get very far in the halls of Capitol Hill. Cruz still shows tremendous potential, but his first several weeks have proven to be a disappointment.
TWO THUMBS DOWN
Bob Menendez (D-NJ)
Sen. Bob Menendez started the 113th Congress as the new Chair for the Committee on Foreign Relations. He is also one of the Democratic Senators in the “Gang of Eight” group aiming to help reform immigration. Menendez was poised to be an influencer this session holding a considerable amount of power. Yet, a closer look shows perhaps his notoriety was overhyped. Aside from the scandal related to a campaign contributor that resulted in his approval rating dropping by fifteen points, Menendez has proven to be underwhelming in his new roles. His position on the Foreign Relations Committee was described by Bloomberg news as an “accidental” chairman. Since 2008, five more-senior Democrats have left the committee including President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry. Additionally, his role with the Gang of Eight has been reduced due to the credibility challenge that accompanies a scandal. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) have been the primary leaders for Democrats during negotiations.
Harry Reid (D-NV)
Sen. Harry Reid was applauded a few weeks ago for leading his party to pass a budget in the Senate. The praise was not warranted as this was the first time since 2009 there was even a vote allowed on a budget, despite legislative rules requiring there to be one. Harry Reid has obstructed the ability for regular order to occur creating a Senate that is stagnant and unproductive. Regular order is Washington-speak for the process in which appropriations bills are moved out of committee and brought to a vote on the Senate (or House) floor. Reid’s decision to run the chamber as a party leader as opposed to the Senate leader has damaged the ability to pass laws and frustrated members of both parties. The beginning of the new Congress provided an opportunity in which there could have been healthy debate on a variety of issues, but the ability to do so was limited by Reid’s management of the rules and procedures. There’s willingness for Senators of both parties to work together, but they need a leader that allows them to do this within the legislative process.
John McCain (R-AZ)
Sen. John McCain entered the 113th Congress no longer as ranking member of the Armed Services Committee because of term limits, but McCain is an establishment in the Senate and his experience and leadership allow him to have input on nearly every debate despite not officially having the leadership post. However as new, fresh faces emerge in the Senate, McCain has appeared to struggle in dealing with some of his younger colleagues and has had to walk back his vocal disapproval over some of their tactics and positions. His comments calling Sens. Paul and Cruz “wacko birds,” in addition to the hostile questioning of Chuck Hagel during nomination hearings, has presented a senior Senator that is not following his own counsel as closely as he could when it comes to being respectful and working with civility. So far he’s worked closely with members of both parties on immigration, fiscal issues and has weighed in on the gun control debate. His influence is significant, but his attitude needs to be tempered if he wants to stay relevant and avoid isolating himself from future leaders.