Five Members of Congress to Watch in 2014
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The Fiscal Times
December 30, 2013

Call it cockeyed optimism or simply battle fatigue, but we’re beginning to hear some loose talk from Capitol Hill and the White House about the prospects for more bipartisan deal-making in 2014 springing from the budget deal.

Congress, of course, just concluded one of its least productive sessions in history and inflicted a 16-day government shutdown on the country that sent lawmakers approval ratings tumbling. With an important mid-term election looming next fall, renewed partisan squabbling would seem the order of the day.

Related: How Congress Became an Incompetent Bureaucracy

Yet President Obama and congressional leaders departed Washington earlier this month voicing cautious optimism that there were other deals to made before the 2014 congressional and gubernatorial campaigns really heat up.

While the first order of business will be converting the bipartisan budget agreement into major spending legislation before a Jan. 15 deadline, there are other legislative prospects as well – including an extension of the expiring supplemental unemployment insurance, reauthorization of farm legislation, tweaking of the Affordable Care Act, renewal of expiring tax provisions, and even an overhaul of the immigration system.

The usual suspects, including House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, will have a lot to say about future legislative successes or failures. And we can expect to hear a great deal from Tea Party bomb throwers such as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY) Here are five other important House and Senate members to watch as events in 2014 begin to unfold.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)  Wyden, 64, a veteran lawmaker and fiscal policy wonk with something of a maverick streak, is moving to center stage  as the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which is responsible for writing tax, entitlement and trade legislation.

Wyden is certain to bring as much—if not more—energy and fresh ideas to the debate over tax and entitlement reform as his predecessor, Max Baucus, who was recently tapped by President Obama to be the next ambassador to China.

Wyden has repeatedly pressed for passage of creative bipartisan ideas, including an overhaul of the tax code that he initially jointly sponsored with then Republican senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and later co-sponsored with Republican Dan Coates of Indiana.

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The Wyden-Coates plan would cut the corporate rate to 24 percent from 35 percent. It would end the ability of U.S. multinationals to defer tax on income earned abroad but would allow them a one-time opportunity to bring old earnings back to the U.S at a very low rate.

Wyden ruffled Democratic feathers in late 2011 when he briefly joined forces with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to draft major revisions to the Medicare law that would have given seniors a choice between a traditional plan and private insurance funded with a government voucher.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH)  In her first term, the highly telegenic former state attorney general has made a rapid ascent within the GOP ranks, thanks in part to a close alliance with two prominent conservative defense hawks—Sens. John McCain (AZ) and Lindsey Graham (SC).

Ayotte, 45, one of only four Republican women in the Senate, was blessed with a handful of high profile committee assignments—including Armed Services, Budget, Commerce and Small Business—that thrust her into virtually every key issue this year, from Obamacare to U.S. policy in the Middle East.

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She was highly critical of the Obama administration’s handling of the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. And she recently dismissed the Affordable Care Act as a hopeless “mess,” even after the administration eliminated many of the technical problems with the online system.

Unlike many of her GOP colleagues who have vowed to repeal or sidetrack Obamacare, Ayotte says she is working with Democrats on incremental changes to the law, such as expanding health savings accounts and repealing a medical devices tax.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)   The cerebral House Budget Committee chairman made his name in Washington and earned the No. 2 spot on the 2012 GOP presidential ticket by promoting  a series of extraordinarily tough GOP spending and tax blue prints.

The eight-term House veteran honed a conservative wish list of cuts and overhauls of Medicare and Medicaid, revisions of the tax code, and numerous cuts in other social safety net programs to energize his party’s base.

Related: How Paul Ryan Would Erase Obama’s Social Contract

Amid the political rubble of this year’s partisan budget warfare and the government shutdown, Ryan late this year finally sought common ground with Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) on a compromise budget. That plan, approved by both houses and signed by the president, lifted the sequester cuts for two years, boosted defense and domestic discretionary spending somewhat, and made modest progress in reducing the long term deficit.

Now Ryan, 43, is angling to become the next chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, after Dave Camp of Michigan is forced to step down at the start of 2015 because of term limits. If Ryan gets his way, he will become the leading GOP voice on tax and entitlement reform in the coming years.

The question many political analysts are asking is whether Ryan really has the fire in his belly to run for president in 2016, or whether he would be more content to steadily work his way up the House GOP leadership ladder—possibly all the way to Speaker.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a veteran Oklahoma House member, has emerged as a sage of the House Republicans.  Cole is a cool head and thoughtful strategist for Boehner and other GOP leaders, and is a valuable counterweight to rabble-rousing Tea Party conservatives in the House.

The 64 year old affable former State Chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party has plenty of experience with fiscal matters, having served on both the House Appropriations and Budget Committees. He’s also a familiar figure on cable TV news programs and likes to mix it up with reporters just outside the House chambers. Time Magazine identified him as “one of the sharpest minds in the House.”

So it was significant when Cole recently asserted that some type of bipartisan compromise on immigration reform was possible in the House next year after disagreement within the House GOP led to a standoff on reform.

According to The Hill, Cole said that House Republicans would likely vote on multiple reform measures next year, with the caveat that Boehner   refuses to bring up the Senate-passed comprehensive bill that includes a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)   New York’s junior senator is a shrewd, persistent and some say annoying player who is not afraid to step on the toes of her colleagues to raise money or get her way on legislative matters.

The first-term senator and her allies made enormous headway this year in forcing the hidebound military to respond to sexual assaults.  She has vowed to press on for changes that the military brass and even some senior Democrats oppose.

Congress passed a broad set of changes to U.S. military personnel policy late last week as part of the annual defense authorization bill that will force the Pentagon to revamp how it deals with cases of sexual assault and rape. Angered by the sharp increase in cases and the lack of reporting them, Gillibrand, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and a bipartisan coalition in the House drafted proposals to address the problem. 

Related: Gillibrand Enlists Paul, Cruz in Battle with Military

The legislation would end the statute of limitations for cases of sexual assault or rape; bar military commanders from overturning jury convictions in sexual assault and rape cases; and make it a crime to retaliate against people who report such crimes.

But that’s still not good enough for Gillibrand, 47. She is pushing to remove military commanders from any involvement in assault and rape cases and have the cases assigned to specialized, independent military prosecutors.

The hard-charging Gillibrand has met with or button-holed nearly every other senator to seek their support for her plan. Even Rand Paul, a noted libertarian, and Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz have signed on to her proposal.  And she is expected to get a vote on it in 2014.

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.