Political TV analyst Liz Cheney, the former vice president’s daughter, thought she could blow away veteran Wyoming Republican senator Mike Enzi in the Republican primary this year. In the end, it was Cheney who ran into a brick wall and dropped out of the race last January, citing health concerns in her family.
Enzi and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) have been close friends since they first arrived in the Senate in 1997, and Sessions always seemed to have a sharper edge and more aggressive style than Enzi. But when the dust settled last week, Enzi prevailed over Sessions to become the next chair of the Senate Budget Committee when the Republicans take control of the Senate next month.
WHY THIS MATTERS
The new Republican Congress will be facing wrenching budgetary questions, including how much more to spend on the war against ISIS, whether to crank up a major infrastructure program, and whether scrap discretionary spending caps that have been pinching domestic and defense programs. Enzi will have to balance the scores of conflicting policy views of the new GOP majority and a vocal Democratic minority.
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With his low key and highly affable style, the 70-year-old Enzi is easy to underestimate. But those who know the former accountant and businessperson well say he is a tough and highly effective legislator, a stickler for detail and someone who likes to make important bipartisan deals.
“He’s quiet, he’s thoughtful, he’s an accountant – one would say a green-eye shade type,” said Bill Hoagland of the Bipartisan Policy Center who once served as the Republican staff director of the Senate Budget Committee. “I think of him as somebody who is conservative but also is one who is willing to make a deal. And while he has one of the most conservative records, he is also perceived as one who has been involved in some of the biggest bipartisan agreements over the last many years.”
“So he must have a way a way of using those conservative credentials to still advance the ball in a bipartisan way,” Hoagland added.
Enzi is one of the most conservative members of Congress on fiscal matters. Ironically, he will succeed as chair one of the chamber’s most liberal Democrats, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.
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Murray and House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) were considered something of a political odd couple because they overcame their parties’ substantial political and ideological differences last year to forge a multi-year budget deal in the wake of a 16-day government shutdown.
Enzi and Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), who will replace Ryan as House Budget Committee Chair in January, should have far less trouble finding common ground since both are staunch conservatives with strong views on spending and public policy. However, Price is far more strident and assertive in promoting the conservative message, and it is not clear how well the two personalities will mesh.
Enzi, a member of the Budget, Finance and Health, Education and Labor committees, reportedly was handpicked to chair the Budget Committee over Sessions. The Alabama Republican, a one-time U.S. attorney, has taken a leading role in opposing President Obama’s recent executive order protecting nearly five million illegal immigrants from the threat of deportation.
Related: Sessions yields to Enzi as U.S. Senate Budget Chairman
For the past four years, Sessions has served as the Budget Committee’s ranking Republican – a generally thankless job that Enzi had passed up – and had set his sights on the committee chair after the Republicans won back control of the Senate in the November midterm election. But Enzi decided he wanted the job for himself, even though it would mean going up against a long-time friend.
McConnell and other GOP leaders viewed Sessions as “the biggest thorn in their side” in trying to resolve the controversy over immigration reform, even invoking the threat of another fiscal showdown, according to a Republican source. The leadership viewed Enzi as someone who wants to see progress made next year towards some type of accommodation with Obama and the Democrats, despite the vast differences between the two parties on the topic.
Moreover, when Murray and Ryan negotiated the bipartisan budget deal late last year, Sessions spoke out against it, arguing, among other things, that the agreement too easily adjusted levels of discretionary spending and provided for new federal fees, according to The Washington Post.
“Once everyone else saw that Enzi was going to have the [Budget Committee Republican members’] votes and the leadership support to become chair, Mr. Sessions did the wise thing and bowed out,” said the GOP source.
Related: Obama Wants Long-Term Infrastructure Plan, Not Keystone
McConnell has signaled that he wants to work with Obama on a handful of issues, including tax reform, trade promotion and infrastructure spending. And he wants the Senate to return to “regular order” in dealing with annual spending issues. That will mean he will want Enzi to negotiate a solid budget deal with House Republicans next year to pave the way for passing 12 separate appropriations bills to fund the government laden with GOP policy directives.
Sessions bowed out of the race Dec. 17 and offered praise for his long-time friend. "Mike is an accountant and a small-businessman who understands the need to balance budgets and tell the truth about the numbers," Sessions said in a statement. "He is a man of integrity and principle, respected by all of his Senate colleagues. I am eager to assist him next year, and I hope to tackle the important issue of welfare reform."
"I look forward to working with Jeff and the rest of the Budget Committee members on a budget that cuts spending, targets executive overreach and reduces the size of government," Enzi said.
Enzi, the son of a Washington state shoe salesperson, earned degrees in accounting and retail marketing before moving to Gillette, Wyoming to start his career. There, he used a business career as a launching pad to a subsequent career in politics, winning elections as a mayor and state representative. In 1996, he won election to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Alan Simpson.
Hoagland said that he has high expectations that Enzi will successfully advance fiscal policy as chair of the Budget Committee, although he doesn’t expect a Grand Bargain to be forged. “But at the margins, he should be able to put fiscal policy a little bit back into focus here,” Hoagland said.
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