Congress returned from its weeklong recess on Monday, with much of Washington’s political hierarchy upended.
While outside groups like the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth were exercising their political muscle over House Republicans, freshman Texas Sen. Ted Cruz emerged from the downtime as a possible GOP presidential nominee.
Meanwhile, the traditional sources of power appeared to be in recovery mode.
President Obama is coping with the limits of the Oval Office, as his efforts to court, browbeat and negotiate with Republican lawmakers has yet to bear much fruit. Meanwhile, GOP congressional leaders such as Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor have struggled to reposition their party and themselves.
Here’s a guide to who is up, and who is down as lawmakers start to address immigration reform this week and then turn their attention to the breach of the debt ceiling beginning on May 18:
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas – Just a few months into his time as a senator, Cruz, 42, is fending off questions about 2016. The Tea Party-style firebrand lit up the audience with a dinner speech last Friday for South Carolina Republicans.
Other senators—such as Arizona’s John McCain—have bristled at Cruz’s gung-ho, highly aggressive approach that is generally out of keeping with the traditional role of a newcomer. But some conservatives have been charmed by his claims that expanded background checks would lead to a national gun registry (despite language to the contrary in the failed bill) and his insistence that only markets untethered from government interference will create prosperity.
“He is the most talented and fearless Republican politician I’ve seen in the last 30 years,” Democratic strategist James Carville said on ABC News’ “This Week.” “He touches every button, and this guy has no fear. He just keeps plowing ahead.”
Cruz blew off presidential speculation on Monday. “My focus right now is on the Senate,” he told Fox News. “The Senate is the battleground.”
Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint – Since ditching Capitol Hill in January, the former South Carolina GOP senator embraced think tank research, but he wields it like a bare-knuckled politician.
“I’m not going to be an apologist for the Republican Party,” DeMint—a Tea Partier—said in early April. “I’m going to talk about the ideas that we think preserve and conserve those ideas that made America great.”
Last month, Heritage challenged Cantor and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and forced the “Young Guns” to back off of one of their new key initiatives – which would have shifted $3.6 billion from Obamacare to a program that helps provide health insurance to Americans with pre-existing conditions.
DeMint didn’t like the idea because it smacked of preserving the 2010 law, rather than dismantling it. On Monday, DeMint took his fight to immigration reform with a new Heritage study controversially claiming the overhaul would cost $6.3 trillion over the coming decades.
Club for Growth president Chris Chocola – Same deal as DeMint. Because the Club for Growth has influence on Republican congressional primaries, it has been able to defy the party’s leadership and encourage members to oppose the tweaks to Obamacare and measures that are viewed as compromises with the White House.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. – As the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Van Hollen was quick to dismiss the impact of the discredited Rogoff-Reinhart study..
The research by the two economists Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart—both currently at Harvard University—claimed that economic growth slowed when the debt-to-GDP ratio was above 90 percent. When flaws were found in the study last month, Van Hollen could authoritatively dismiss the GOP argument that the deficit must be eliminated in 10 years.
“There is no excuse for putting the brakes on already slow economic growth,” Van Hollen told POLITICO. “The Republican plan is a prescription for more European-style austerity.” That simple talking point—that reducing the deficit too quickly will paralyze the economy—changes the tenor of the debate going forward, a debate that will be led by Van Hollen.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl . –There are advantages to being the leader of the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” on comprehensive immigration reform. Rubio can simultaneously help the GOP score points with the Hispanic community and prove his mettle as a potential 2016 presidential candidate. With optimism that the gang’s bill can become law, Rubio has the opportunity to come across as a bridge builder while touting tighter border security and offering 11 million undocumented workers a possible path to citizenship.
But shepherding the bill is different from promoting it on TV talk shows. His rise also foretells the possibility of a fall. The concept of amnesty remains unpopular with some conservative lawmakers, who claim the measure will be costly and fail to protect the borders. A National Review cover story calls it “Rubio’s Folly” and charges that the Florida Republican has gone from being the conservatives’ representative to the “Gang of Eight” to the “Gang’s ambassador to conservatives.”
FOUR WHO HAVE LOST TRACTION
President Obama – The president hasn’t mastered the powers of persuasion—at least not with Republicans. Congress stopped the FAA furloughs, but left the rest of the $85 billion in sequestration cuts in place. The Senate killed his gun control initiative. Syria edged its toe across his “red line” by reportedly using chemical weapons. The debt ceiling gets breached on May 18. And Obama’s approval rating is sub-50 percent.
Regardless of how much “leadership” Obama shows, the Senate still has its prohibitively high 60-vote supermajority and devoutly conservative Republicans set much of the tone in the House.
The president still envisions immigration reform as landing on his desk. But he understands that tax hikes to replace the sequester and stricter gun control really depend on the GOP itself changing. He knows that public pressure and golf course outings—like his round with three senators on Monday—have yet to produce the results he desires.
“I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions,” Obama said last week.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – The Kentucky Republican has an equally thankless task.
Democrats quote his past remarks as proof that the Republican agenda consists primarily of being a roadblock to Obama. But when push came to shove, it was McConnell’s responsibility to cut deals with Vice President Biden on the fiscal cliff this year, the debt ceiling in 2011, and the two-year extension of the Bush-era tax rates in 2010.
His approval rating back in Kentucky is a lowly 36 percent, according to Public Policy Polling. Republicans in the Blue Grass state overwhelmingly prefer their other senator, the filibustering libertarian, Rand Paul. Other surveys have McConnell’s favorability approaching 50 percent. But McConnell has the challenge of defending his seat—no Democrat has yet to declare their candidacy—as big issues play out that he helped to resolve in the past in a politically charged atmosphere.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor – The Virginia Republican was handed a major loss last month by his own caucus.
At the end of April, Cantor pulled a bill with a $3.6 billion tweak to Obamacare. It was his effort to craft a softer, more-caring image for the GOP, yet by canceling the vote he ended up in a position that reinforced the party’s ideological rigidity.
This puts Cantor in the same boat as Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who infamously had to pull his “Plan B” on the fiscal cliff because part of the GOP caucus opposed its tax hikes on incomes above $1 million. For congressional leaders to negotiate with the White House and appeal to the American people, they need to have the full weight of their fellow partisans behind them
Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-WV, and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. – They seemed like the perfect twosome to get something done about gun control – Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who was highly rated by the National Rifle Association, and Toomey, a fiscally conservative Republican from Pennsylvania whose suburban constituents demanded a response to the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December that killed 26 children and adults.
Rather than waging what they knew would be a hopeless crusade to reinstitute a federal ban on military-style assault weapons or limits on the size of gun clips, Manchin and Toomey promoted what appeared to be a politically doable plan to expand criminal background checks for gun purchases. They briefly became the toast of Washington -- demonstrating that bipartisanship can work, even amid bitter political gridlock.
But when time came for a showdown on the Senate floor, their proposal could muster only 54 votes– or six votes shy of the needed 60-vote super majority to move forward. A bitter Toomey at first blamed the letdown on Obama, saying his reelection campaign had left Americans divided and resentful. Subsequently, he conceded that some members of his party opposed expanding background checks for gun sales because they didn't want to "be seen helping the president." Regardless of who was to blame, Toomey made it clear he was washing his hands of the mess.
Manchin blamed the NRA’s tactics in going after the bill as dishonest, based on the group's misleading claims that universal background checks at gun shows and on the Internet would eventually lead to a national gun registry – or even government confiscation of guns. But Manchin insisted he wasn’t giving up, and would try again to pass the bill later this year.