10 Members to Watch

Posted January 20, 2011 at 3:34pm

With a new Congress come new power brokers and new decision-makers on Capitol Hill. Roll Call selected its top 10 Members to watch in the 112th Congress. These five House Members and five Senators will influence the debate and drive caucus decisions over the next two years. Some of them are in elected leadership, some of them are behind-the-scenes players, but each of them will have a significant role to play.

House Members

Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)

McCarthy has had a quick rise to elected leadership.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) handpicked the California Republican to serve as his Chief Deputy Whip in the 110th Congress. In that role, McCarthy earned a reputation as an idea-generator with a penchant for using technology to advance the GOP’s message. Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) later tasked McCarthy with heading the America Speaking Out initiative, which led to the Republican governing agenda that was unveiled in September.

McCarthy also served as vice chairman of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 2010 election cycle. Along with Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.), he drove across the country recruiting many of the now-freshmen. McCarthy was one of the founders of the NRCC’s Young Guns fundraising program created during 2008 cycle.

The natural networker will need to use all his skills as he takes on the challenging task of whipping votes for the 112th Congress: He will have to try to unite a Conference that contains a new class of conservatives. In particular, McCarthy will face an early test when Republicans take on the politically sensitive issue of increasing the debt limit.

Fred Upton (R-Mich.)

The new Energy and Commerce Chairman may not be well-known outside Republican circles, but that’s likely to change soon.
Upton will be at the center of the 112th Congress’ debate on the economy, telecommunications, health care and energy policy.
His ascendency to the Energy and Commerce chairmanship was anything but assured. Upton won the gavel after a bitter fight against then-ranking member Joe Barton (Texas). Barton would have had to secure a waiver to keep his slot as the panel’s top Republican.

Upton also had to fend off criticism from third-party groups and others that he wasn’t conservative enough for the job. Long viewed as a moderate, Upton represents southwestern Michigan, where 54 percent of the voters sided with President Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

But Upton has already assuaged some of the conservatives’ concerns with his pick of GOP lobbyist Gary Andres as his staff director.

Upton has also pledged to repeal key parts of new health care law and has said he would home in on the Obama administration’s climate change policies. Upton has also said he would adopt new committee rules to cut spending and restore fiscal responsibility.

Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)

The tea party darling has the opportunity to wield far more influence in the 112th Congress.

Bachmann is likely to have many allies in the Republican freshman class; a decent share of the 87 new Members were elected with the support of the tea party movement. Bachmann founded the Tea Party Caucus and has vowed to be a leader on the movement’s priorities, such as deficit reduction, tax cuts and a smaller government.

Immediately following the midterm elections, Bachmann’s role was unclear: She made an bid to chair the Republican Conference but dropped out after it became apparent that Rep. Jeb Hensarling had the votes locked up. The Texan had the support of leadership and much of the Conference.

GOP leaders, however, decided to give Bachmann a slot on the Intelligence Committee in the new Congress.
Bachmann’s star power was first on display during the 2009 debate over health care reform when she helped rally conservatives against the Democratic bill.

Elijah Cummings (D-Md.)

Democrats have a lot riding on Cummings. The Maryland Democrat, who was recently named the ranking member on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, will be in a position to counter aggressive Chairman Darrell Issa, who has already declared war on the Obama administration. The California Republican has called for six major investigations during the first three months of the year, including inquiries into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s role in the foreclosure crisis, recalls by the Food and Drug Administration, and the release of classified government cables by WikiLeaks. Cummings won the ranking member job with the quiet support of the White House and Democratic leadership, leap-frogging over more-senior Rep. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.). Former Chairman Edolphus Towns (N.Y.) decided against seeking the post; he said then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signaled she wouldn’t support his bid.

Cummings, a former Congressional Black Caucus chairman, has pledged to ensure there is no abuse of process or Republican overreach.

He has a strong background in investigations. In October 2008, he led the investigation into American International Group Inc.’s use of federal bailout funds. He has since been viewed as an authority on the economy.

Jim Matheson (D-Utah)

The Blue Dog Coalition wants to be a bridge between the White House and House Republicans while helping to rebuild a Democratic majority, and Matheson may be best-positioned to provide that leadership.

The Utah Democrat stepped up his game in the 111th Congress as a spokesman and co-chairman for the fiscally conservative group, staking out positions early and often against what many Blue Dogs considered to be the overreaches of the House led by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Matheson further showed his independence by quickly calling for the California Democrat to step aside after the midterm massacre.

In addition to serving as one of the Blue Dog’s three co-chairmen this Congress, Matheson will also take on several other roles that will give him opportunities to enhance his profile. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) named him to the Chief Deputy Whip slot of now-retired Blue Dog Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.). Matheson also will help run the Blue Dog’s political action committee, helping to recruit and raise money for Blue “Pups” across the country. And Matheson was named both to the Democratic Steering Committee and to a panel that considers new Caucus rules.


John Barrasso (R-Wyo.)

Since winning a gubernatorial appointment to succeed the late Sen. Craig Thomas (R) in 2007 and later a special election to fill the remainder of Craig’s term, Barrasso has advanced quickly in the GOP ranks.

An orthopedic surgeon by trade, Barrasso began making his mark in the last Congress by helping Senate Republicans develop and execute their legislative and messaging strategies for opposing President Barack Obama’s health care reform law. The Wyoming Republican was also tasked with communicating the Conference’s health care message to the media and the public.

In September, Republicans rewarded Barrasso by electing him as Conference vice chairman. Barrasso’s star should continue to rise in the 112th Congress. With an emboldened House Republican majority having voted to repeal Obama’s health care law, health care reform is likely to re-emerge as a major issue on Capitol Hill; Barrasso is expected to be among the Republicans leading the repeal push in the Senate. Look for Barrasso to resume his weekly “doctor’s second opinion” floor speeches, intended to focus on what the Republicans view as the health care laws’ flaws, whenever the Senate is in session.

Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

Murray won a hard-fought re-election battle in November, and as part of the Democratic leadership team, she could have chosen to relish in her midterm victory and tackle the next challenge in her Senate career. But instead, the top-ranking woman in Senate leadership — Murray is the Conference secretary — agreed to reprise her role as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairwoman. Murray was head of the DSCC during the 2002 cycle.

Murray already held significant sway as the Conference secretary: She developed a reputation among Senators as a voice of reason and mediator of intra-Conference disputes.

In agreeing to helm the DSCC in what could be a difficult cycle for Democrats, Murray did the Conference a huge favor: Every other Democrat capable of chairing the DSCC and not up for re-election had refused to take the job, in some cases despite several appeals by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Meanwhile, Murray is keeping her job as the No. 4 leader as Conference secretary. Her dual roles put her at the nexus of every legislative and political decision the Senate majority will make in the 112th Congress.

Mark Begich (D-Alaska)

Begich defeated legendary Republican Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008 and quickly established himself as an ambitious Member interested in Capitol Hill’s inside game.

During the 111th Congress, Begich emerged as a leader among the 2006 and 2008 Democratic classes on procedural reform of Senate rules; he also pushed the Democratic leadership and veteran Members to bend to the will of the caucus’ junior Senators to take a more aggressive stance on legislation. Begich managed to accomplish most of this behind the scenes, while presenting himself as a reliable team player in public, and for this he was rewarded with a slot in leadership beginning this year as chairman of the Steering and Outreach Committee.

As the only first-term Senator in leadership and the only Democratic leader from a reliably Republican state, Begich brings a unique perspective to the top tier. The Alaskan agrees with his liberal colleagues on most issues, but he is moderate on energy-related issues, as befits a Senator from the Last Frontier.

Rob Portman (R-Ohio)

Few Republicans elected on Nov. 2 arrive in the Senate with Portman’s portfolio. He and freshman Sen. Roy Blunt were recently appointed to the Republican Whip team by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.).

A former House Member, Portman served both as the director of the Office of Management and Budget and U.S. trade representative in the George W. Bush administration. The Ohio Republican has existing relationships in the House, which could come in handy for the Senate Conference as it works with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the new House majority. Portman also has insight into a presidential administration, which could prove helpful in future negotiations with President Barack Obama.

Also, budget and international trade issues, among Portman’s areas of expertise, could be at the forefront this Congress. Portman is likeable and a formidable fundraiser; he managed to win a Senate race in a swing state by nearly 20 points.

That fact alone could make his support much sought after during the upcoming 2012 GOP presidential primary.

Mike Crapo (R-Idaho)

Crapo has spent most of his Senate tenure in obscurity; content to allow other Republicans bask in the spotlight. He doesn’t hit the Sunday show circuit, rarely goes on a cable television news program and isn’t one to hold court with reporters outside the Senate floor.

But with the GOP’s top Budget Committee member, Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), having retired in December, knowledgeable Senate Republican insiders say Crapo is poised to fill a void. Crapo, a member of the Finance Committee, is positioned to be at the center of the debate on deficit reduction and the upcoming budget resolution. The Senate Republican leadership in 2010 appointed Crapo to serve on Obama’s deficit reduction committee, and Crapo joined prominent budget hawk Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in publicly advocating that Congress vote to endorse the commission’s controversial recommendations.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and the rest of GOP leadership team tend to delegate control over particular policy issues to the individual Senators, according to their area of interest and expertise. Although Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has succeeded Gregg as ranking member on the Budget Committee, look for Crapo to increasingly take on the role of one of Senate Republicans top budget and financial experts.

Up-and-Coming GOP House Freshmen

Diane Black (Tenn.)

Most freshmen are not able to contribute financially to other House candidates while they are running for office, but most freshmen aren’t like Black.

During her campaign for the House, Black donated $1,000 to more than a dozen GOP candidates around the country, a demonstration of both her electoral strength and her ambition to be a player in Washington, D.C.

Her generosity was rewarded after the election with two plum assignments: She was elected by her fellow freshmen to be their representative on the GOP Policy Committee, and she was given a seat on the Ways and Means Committee.

Black, a former nurse, plans to focus on repealing or rewriting the health care reform bill.

Black is conservative on social and fiscal issues. She has supported strengthening the nation’s immigration laws and was endorsed by Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project.

Cory Gardner (Colo.)

Gardner served on the GOP transition team under Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), allowing him to develop an early relationship with one of Speaker John Boehner’s (Ohio) top allies.

The one-time staffer to former Sen. Wayne Allard (R) served two terms in the Colorado state House, including as his party’s Minority Whip. Gardner is one of just five freshmen to serve on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which will be central this year to Republican efforts to replace the health care law. Those efforts are expected to fail, but Gardner’s perch will nevertheless give him exposure and an attractive venue for fundraising.

Tim Griffin (Ark.)

In a freshman class filled with Washington outsiders, Griffin bucks the trend. He was a top political aide before coming to Congress, holding senior positions at the Republican National Committee and the White House before entering electoral politics. The Republican, whose victory in Little Rock was a GOP pickup last year, is on the Majority Whip team.

Griffin raised an impressive $1.8 million for his campaign and won plaudits by contributing to other GOP candidates. The Army reservist and Iraq War veteran was rewarded with seats on the Judiciary and Armed Services committees.

“It is openly talked about in the leadership circles that Tim Griffin could be NRCC chairman sooner rather than later,” a former GOP operative said.

Kristi Noem (S.D.)

Even before Rep. Kristi Noem was sworn in to office, House Republicans encouraged her to take a starring role as a member of leadership. She campaigned hard for one of two freshman spots at the leadership table and won to become the freshman class liaison to leadership.

Noem was a favorite of the tea party movement and was nicknamed “South Dakota’s Sarah Palin.” She has also been compared to Sen. John Thune (S.D.), another fast-rising Republican who is considering a White House bid.

She has been assigned to the Natural Resources Committee, a key committee for her rural state. She will also serve on the Education and Workforce Committee.

Allen West (Fla.)

A favorite of the tea party movement and a fundraising powerhouse, West already has made waves in Washington, D.C. The retired Army lieutenant colonel is the only Republican member of the Congressional Black Caucus and its first GOP participant since 1997. Criticized by Democrats for his fiery campaign rhetoric, West said in an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel following the Arizona shootings that he had no intentions of softening his image.

“My background is I am a tough guy, and in tough times you have to use a little bit stronger language when you start talking about the future legacy of my country,” he said.

Indeed, he blasted fellow Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) for suggesting toned-down rhetoric, and he criticized Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) for creating a Congressional schedule that cuts down the time spent working in Washington. Members, West said in a letter to Cantor last month, should spend more time working in Washington rather than less.