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Cheney’s Exit Is the Buzz, but Enzi’s Future Is the Story

Enzi is likely to return to the Capitol a year from now as one of its most adept and best-positioned legislative forces. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Enzi is likely to return to the Capitol a year from now as one of its most adept and best-positioned legislative forces. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Few would argue that Michael B. Enzi ought to be the happiest guy in Congress this week.

As a practical matter, he’s just become the first of the 27 senators seeking new terms in 2014 to win re-election. Now that Liz Cheney has backed out of her GOP primary challenge, Enzi is as close as there is in politics to a sure bet to win his fourth term in solidly Republican Wyoming.

Once that happens, Enzi will be in position to return to the Capitol a year from now as one of its most adept and best positioned legislative forces, especially if his party has reclaimed control after eight years in the minority.

Enzi is not only unimpeachable from the right — as the former vice president’s daughter was belatedly starting to figure out — but he is also among the relatively few proven deal-makers in a Congress characterized by hardened ideological standoffs. The self-effacing nature suggested by his back story — he’s the only accountant, the only computer programmer and the only former shoe salesman in the Senate — comes off as the real thing in the daily legislative grind, where Enzi gains bipartisan admiration as an anchor tenant on the more virtuous end of the work horse to show horse spectrum.

In short, his low-profile but high-impact style of conservatism looks to be an essential piece of the Senate Republican strategic game plan for the rest of the decade, especially whenever his side is looking to strike a deal with the Democrats on domestic policy.

Enzi is not only positioned to make the most of it, but sounds determined to do so. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” is one of his favored cowboy aphorisms.

No more than 10 Republicans will have more seniority next year than Enzi. And he’ll turn 70 next month, so if his health stays robust he could well be around longer than one more term.

Under the term limit rules of his caucus, a GOP takeover this fall would permit him to reclaim the chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for as long as four years. (He was chairman in 2005 and 2006 and ranking Republican for the maximum six years after that.)  The gavel would give Enzi significant sway over shaping GOP social policy in the run-up to the next presidential election — an especially powerful assignment if the party decides to abandon talk of repealing the 2010 health care law in favor of legislation to reconfigure it or replace it with something altogether different.

Depending on how the dominoes fall, there are a couple of scenarios that would allow Enzi to become ranking member (if not chairman) of the Budget Committee at the start of the next administration, which would give him significant power to either advance the fiscal program of a fellow Republican or conscribe the aspirations of another Democrat.

There’s also a chance, hinged to the retirement timetables of a couple of safe-seat colleagues, that Enzi could take the top GOP spot on the Finance Committee before the end of his next term.

(That would be a remarkable turnaround for the senator. He was denied a seat on the tax, trade and entitlement panel by his leadership so often during his first two terms — on the grounds that his seat was too safe and the committee already was overstocked with Westerners — that he came close to retiring in 2008. He finally got the assignment five years ago.)

The bulk of Enzi’s legislative reputation comes from the four years when he and liberal icon Edward M. Kennedy occupied the top seats on the HELP Committee. Enzi’s voting record remained true to his small-government, socially conservative roots. (He’s stuck with the GOP on 96 percent of the mostly party line votes of the past 15 years, way above average for his caucus.) But the two became friendly and frequent enough collaborators that the Massachusetts Democrats had “Irish Mist” training pants delivered at birth to every Enzi grandchild.

That’s because they came up with their “80/20 rule,” which Enzi says remains his guiding formula: Bipartisan agreement on 80 percent of the issues in a bill means legislation embracing those accords should move ahead, with the items in disagreement left on the cutting room floor for another day.

The arrangement led to the enactment of laws on issues as diverse as private pension funding, drug approvals, mental health, mine safety and vocational education. But Kennedy became mortally ill before negotiations began in 2009 on what became Obamacare, and Enzi and a handful of other Republicans dropped out of the talks after three months.

Such is his reputation that few were surprised at the way he handled his return to the Capitol for the year’s first vote on Monday evening, a few hours after Cheney announced that unspecified “serious health issues” in her family had prompted the end of her struggling campaign.

After awkwardly accepting high-fives in the well of the Senate from several GOP colleagues, Enzi said he wasn’t much interested in talking about his unexpectedly swift political reprieve. Instead, he asked reporters and fellow senators to keep the Cheney family in their prayers.

It was the most magnanimous gesture possible toward someone whose campaign pitch was to label him a senatorial has-been. “It is necessary for a new generation of leaders to step up to the plate,” Cheney said in her July announcement.

Turns out, in a fourth-term Enzi, she might just get what she asked for.

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