New Senators May Make House Calls

Blunt, Others With History Might Become Liaisons

Posted December 13, 2010 at 6:46pm

Republicans have high hopes that the party’s incoming crop of freshman Senators, who carry years of experience in the House, may help the party build stronger ties between the chambers.

The Senate Republican Conference for the 112th Congress will include several new Senators with rich experience in the House, including Sen.-elect Roy Blunt, who served as Republican Whip in the House in several Congresses.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl said he hopes to use the new immigrants from the House to strengthen cross-Dome relations.

“One good thing is we have a group of real leaders that has come from the House now to the Senate, and that helps the Senators better understand the workings of the House — and frankly, they’re better able to take back to their former House colleagues what’s going on here and understand it better,” the Arizona Republican said. “Roy is, of course, one of those people.” 

Blunt is one of six House Republicans elected to the Senate in last month’s elections, and he enjoys close relationships in his caucus as well as with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). 

Blunt said he has not been approached to take on any kind of formal liaison role, but the Missouri Republican acknowledged that there is room to improve communication between the chambers next year, when Republicans will control the House and can drive priorities that would have no chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“I think there is a lot of potential for both bodies, the House and Senate, to work better together,” Blunt told Roll Call. “I think continuing to find Members of the House eager to work on an issue and try to work with them to introduce legislation that is as similar as it can … is really important and needs to be pursued. And wherever possible it needs to be bipartisan.”

Former Sen. Trent Lott said he was dedicated to maintaining strong relations with the House when he served as Senate Majority Leader. The Mississippi Republican had served in leadership in the House, and as a Senator he shuttled back to the House on a regular basis for informal lunches and regular meetings. The constant conversation helped shape policy and prevent intraparty bickering between the two chambers, said Republican aides who served at the time. 

When Lott stepped down from the Majority Leader post, his successor, Bill Frist (Tenn.), designated Lott as the go-between with the House. No Member in either party has filled that role since Lott’s departure, several sources said, and Lott said Senators often seem to forget their roots in the House once they arrive in the Senate. 

“When you move over to the Senate, House Members immediately develop a jaundiced view of you,” he said. “I understood that because I was in the House for 19 years, and I wanted to change that when I was in the Senate.”

While he enjoyed the esteem and tradition of being a Senator, Lott said serving in the House was “more fun” because his colleagues were younger and socialized together more often. More than that, Lott said he was frustrated that no one else seemed to be paying the House any attention. 

“I would get upset when the House would pass bills and the Senate would go on its merry way,” he said.  

In all, there will be 23 former House Republicans in the Senate next year. While that number is the same as this year — and lower than previous years — Republican aides and Members point out that the incoming class brings a wealth of expertise that will be useful in the Senate, including newly sworn-in Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.), an appropriator in the House and founder of the moderate Tuesday Group who won a special Senate election, and Sen.-elect Rob Portman (Ohio), who served 12 years in the House before becoming President George W. Bush’s trade representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget. Others include Sens.-elect John Boozman (Ark.), Jerry Moran (Kan.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.).

Senators and their staff have traditionally looked at the House as a mishmash of brash rabble-rousers, while House Members and those who work for them cast their Senate counterparts as the slow-moving undertakers that allow good legislation to die. 

“The relationship between the House and the Senate are pretty rough because of the differences in the way the two bodies operate,” said Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), who spent almost two decades as a Member of the House.  

Senators who cut their teeth in the House also said they have a better understanding of the legislative process. But those that do keep up with their former House colleagues also have a better read on what bills could be headed their way.

Sen. Richard Burr, who was elected in 2004 in a class of seven former House Republicans, still has lunch with his old colleagues every Tuesday. The North Carolina Republican and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who joined the Senate in 2002 after four terms in the House, dine with Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) regularly as part of an effort to stay close to their legislative roots. Those gatherings, which Burr stressed are more social and less strategic, could take on new meaning next year. 

“It certainly becomes more relevant now with Republicans controlling the House to know what they’re working with, what the blueprint is, to make sure it dovetails with what we want to do,” he said. 

One former GOP leadership aide said that while there is not a formal plan to deploy the new Senators to work with the House, “McConnell is strategic and he’s going to utilize everything at his disposal … Senate Republicans are going to want to bring the freshmen [former] House Members into the mix.”