Who wields real power in Washington is a highly subjective matter. It is one often determined by the outcome of an election or a change in seniority on Capitol Hill or simply the accident of someone being in the right place at the right time.
Many power brokers are largely invisible because they operate in the background as senior advisers or aides, or because they are well-heeled lobbyists and campaign contributors who quietly pull strings and influence legislation and federal regulations. In short, it’s not always obvious who is likely to play a central role in the next big chapter of Washington politics – except this time it is.
After routing the Democrats in the Nov. 4 mid-term election, Republicans next week will take control of both the Senate and the House for the first time in nearly a decade. After licking its wounds, the Obama administration is bracing for another critical legislative session– but without the backstop of a Democratic-controlled Senate.
The lame duck session of the 113th Congress last month provided a taste of what to expect in the coming year or two – and it wasn’t all bad. Republicans and the White House reached agreement on a massive $1.1 trillion spending package for the remainder of the fiscal year, and the GOP allowed the Senate to confirm scores of presidential nominations.
Many of the most powerful people during those final days of the old Congress are almost certain to be the most powerful players in the coming legislative drama. Here are six of them:
President Obama Obama is preparing for his final big push to try to secure his legacy before he hits true lame duck status late this year as the 2016 presidential campaign heats up.
While he has tried to do much through executive action to advance his environmental, economic and immigration agenda, the president still needs Congress to advance his goals of tax reform, additional infrastructure spending to further spur the economy, expand trade opportunities and enact true immigration and border security legislation.
Despite years of bitter conflict with congressional Republicans, the president is still willing to play ball with GOP leaders provided they don’t try to use future spending bills to undermine his signature health care legislation, his new diplomatic and commercial relations with Cuba, or his executive order protecting more than four million illegal immigrants from deportation. If that happens, he said, he wouldn’t hesitate to use his veto pen.
There seems to be new spring in the president’s step in light of a surging economy, the sharp declines in the unemployment rate and the budget deficit, and a soaring stock market. Moreover, the president’s approval rating has shot up to 48 percent in recent days, according to Gallup, its highest level since August 2013.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) Only time will tell, of course, but the wily, taciturn Kentuckian has the potential of becoming one of the more effective and productive Majority Leaders in recent memory.
McConnell has repeatedly shown that he plays political hardball, and he set out to be a major thorn in the side of Obama and the Democrats from practically the day Obama first took office in 2009. But he has always been more of a political strategist and master of the Senate rules and traditions than a conservative ideologue.
He has repeatedly shown a willingness and talent to step in at the last minute to engineer a major bipartisan deal to avert a crisis – as he did in 2011 just hours before the government faced its first default in U.S. history or in the fall of 2013 in helping to end a 16-day government shutdown.
Unlike House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) who has struggled to hold his fractious GOP caucus together, McConnell has had repeated success in containing the Tea Party wing of their party. After spending three decades in the Senate waiting for this moment, the 72-year-old McConnell will have his eye on building a legacy as much as his nemesis Obama.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) McCain may never get over his loss to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, but the one-time political maverick has done a pretty good job of rebranding himself as the Republicans’ chief spokesperson on foreign policy and defense.
As the new chair of the Armed Services Committee and a senior member of Foreign Relations, McCain will be in the catbird’s seat in criticizing Obama on defense and foreign policy.
McCain has blasted Obama on virtually every major facet of his foreign and defense policies, from the way he is waging war against ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria to countering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s partitioning of eastern Ukraine to negotiating a nuclear limitation deal with Iran. McCain will be the gatekeeper for many of Obama’s nominations – including Ashton Carter, the new Defense Secretary. And he will have a big say on future defense spending and the fate of the sequester.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) The one-time Harvard Law professor and federal consumer advocate insists she will not challenge former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 – but few completely believe her. That is why many Democrats, including Clinton and her supporters, have been hanging on Warren’s every word as they try to discern her true intentions.
A champion of the lower middle class and a crusader against income inequality, the Massachusetts Democrat has fueled a “draft Warren” movement led by MoveOn.org and 300 former Obama campaign officials. She has commanded national attention by lashing out at Wall Street and the rich and powerful and even taking her own party to task for “bowing and scraping” to big corporations and big political donors.
Last month, she mobilized liberals across Capitol Hill against the $1.1 trillion government spending bill that weakened a key provision of the 2010 Dodd-Frank law that restricted banks’ investment practices. And she has angered the White House by leading a highly public battle against the nomination of Antonio Weiss, a prominent investment banker, for a key Treasury post.
Warren’s role as chief spokesperson for her party’s liberal wing was amplified after she won a coveted spot in the Senate Democratic leadership responsible for shaping policy. Meanwhile, Clinton has lavished praise on her and has begun to noticeably tailor her speeches for more liberal audiences.
Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen With the economic recovery picking up pace, Yellen will see her responsibility shift from designing a monetary policy that encourages growth to designing one that avoids overheating the economy. Inflation still remained well below the Fed’s two-percent target in the fourth quarter of 2014 despite years of highly “accommodative” monetary policy – meaning near-zero interest rates. But in 2015, most expect the voices calling for interest rate hikes to become increasingly loud.
As the most influential member of the Federal Open Market Committee, Yellen will have to navigate a path between doing too much too soon on interest rates, which some fear could stifle the economic recovery, and too little too late, which could allow damaging inflation to set in. At her final press conference of 2014, Yellen came as close as she ever has to putting interest rate discussions on a timetable. While not committing to anything, she suggested that after the first two meetings of the FOMC in 2015, which occur in January and March, the process of “normalization” might begin. That means the April FOMC meeting will be highly anticipated by the financial markets.
The Next CBO Director Who will run the Congressional Budget Office in 2015, after the term of current CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf expires, remains a mystery. There is no doubt, however, that whoever takes the reins of the budget scorekeeper will wield outsized influence in Washington.
Republicans have big goals for the 114th Congress, in which they will control both the House and the Senate. But achieving some of them will be contingent on their policies not substantially adding to the debt and deficit. That’s where the CBO comes in.
One of the first things Republicans want to accomplish is changing the way the CBO analyzes major pieces of legislation. They are working on a plan to require the agency to implement “dynamic scoring” of legislation. The controversial practice attempts to measure the macroeconomic effects of government taxation and spending policies. Supply-siders on the GOP side of the aisle believe dynamic scoring will validate their belief that tax cuts increase government revenue, making them easier to fit into the budget.
However, if longtime Washington hands know anything about the CBO, it’s that lawmakers and presidents need to be careful what they wish for. The CBO staff has a strong culture of non-partisan analyses, and there remains an influential community of former directors in Washington who have all been dubious about dynamic scoring.
Both parties have been disappointed by their handpicked CBO directors over the years. Elmendorf’s office has stymied the Democratic White House on various occasions, and Republican-appointees have been no different. If Congressional Republicans think they can drop a partisan into Elmendorf’s job and suddenly get what they want out of CBO, they may be unpleasantly surprised.
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