There was a time long ago when freshman senators – like good children -- were mostly seen but not heard. Newcomers to the Senate typically stayed in the background while they learned the ropes, made friends and gradually developed expertise on their committees.
Even Hillary Rodham Clinton intentionally low-keyed it during her first year as a senator from New York in 2001, seemingly content to stand in the shadow of Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and other senior Democrats and avoid the polarizing celebrity and hubbub of her years as First Lady.
Those days of freshman self-effacement and restraint seem strangely quaint today in light of newcomers such as Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky who began positioning themselves for a run at the White House shortly after they unpacked their bags and figured out where the Senate gym was located.
As the National Journal noted, there are a handful of fresh faces every two years who manage to make a mark within months of their arrival in the Senate and House – and that certainly has been true in the 114th Congress. Some of these newbies quickly assumed leading roles on foreign and domestic issues and have commanded the respect of others in their party.
The National Journal last week inaugurated a “Freshman Power Ranking” that provides a guide to freshmen who are cited by their colleagues and peers for achieving “uncommon success” in Congress. Here are the six freshman senators who garnered attention and influence in record time:
1) Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) – The Harvard Law graduate and decorated combat veteran surged to prominence by drafting an open letter to Iranian leaders on behalf of a majority of Senate Republicans warning that any nuclear agreement Tehran strikes with President Obama could be repealed by the next administration or Congress. Cotton, a defense hawk, has quickly established himself as a leading GOP voice on defense and foreign policy matters. He is also vice chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where he will help recruit the next bumper crop of freshmen.
2) Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia) – As a former House member, Capito is no stranger to Capitol Hill, and she wasted little time insinuating herself into the Senate GOP leadership. She serves as a member of both Sen. John Cornyn’s whip team and the only freshman to counsel Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Capito, the daughter of the late West Virginia governor Arch Moore, also accompanied McConnell and five of her fellow freshman on a delegation trip to the Middle East this spring. And as the only freshman to be awarded the coveted chair of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Capito will be a player in the ongoing debate over fiscal 2016 spending.
3) Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) -- Ernst made something of a splash within weeks of arriving in Washington when she was tapped to give the GOP’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech -- and handled it with aplomb. Since then, Ernst has buckled down and begun to focus more on legislation than media hype. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) appointed her a vice chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and her Iowa roots are certain to ensure her popularity with GOP’s burgeoning crop of presidential hopefuls.
4) Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) – Gardner’s convincing victory in blue-state Colorado has given him cache among GOP leaders who are eager to make further inroads in Democratic-dominated states and congressional districts. The highly affable Gardner is also on Cornyn’s whip team and has demonstrated a talent for reaching across the aisle to enlist support from Democrats on some votes. He is also a gifted legislator – with seven bills to his credit, including some with broad support in the party.
5) Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) -- Lankford is yet another member of the Senate GOP whip team. His experience in House leadership gave him a leg up in becoming a spokesperson for the majority party in the upper chamber. Lankford has sponsored two bills so far this Congress, including the Taxpayers Right-to-Know Act, which would give Americans a better understanding of how their tax dollars are being spent. That spending transparency legislation has co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle and looks likely to pass the Senate this year.
6) Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) -- Cassidy, another former House member, has sponsored nine bills during his five months in the Senate, putting him at the head of the freshman class in drafting legislation. Some of his bills focus on the Affordable Care Act, including legislation to overturn the law's controversial risk corridor provision and to repeal the unpopular medical device tax. The Louisiana Republican has long been a champion of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and was instrumental in passage of legislation in the House and Senate to try to force President Obama’s hand to sign off on the project. Obama vetoed the bill when it finally reached his desk.
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