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Senate Leadership Elections Set Stage for 2017

McConnell and Schumer take top posts

New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, center, will have an expanded leadership team behind him next year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, center, will have an expanded leadership team behind him next year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate’s leadership elections went off without a hitch Wednesday, with victorious Republicans keeping their top echelon intact.

Democrats elevated Charles E. Schumer to the role of minority leader for the next Congress, as anticipated, but the most interesting development might be that the Brooklyn lawmaker is going to need a bigger meeting table.

In what appeared to be an effort to respond to the 2016 elections with a more ideologically diverse team, Democrats added Vermont independent Bernie Sanders and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin as representatives of a more progressive faction and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia representing a more centrist contingent. Sanders will be chairman of outreach, Baldwin will serve as conference secretary and Manchin will be vice chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, an advisory board to leadership.

“Adding Bernie, Tammy and Joe to our team shows we can unite the disparate factions of our party and our country. Our whole leadership team is emblematic of that. The team is ideologically and geographically diverse. It mixes the wisdom of experience with the vigor of youth, at least in Senate years,” Schumer said.

“The common thread is that each of those senators have devoted their lives to fighting for the middle class and those struggling to get there,” Schumer said. “Each of us — each of us believes we need a sharper bolder, economic message about turning the economic system, which so many feel is rigged against them, to one that works for the people.”

Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois will remain in the No. 2 post, now with the formal title of whip. He had secured the votes needed to hold that job early in the process, shortly after the announced retirement of current Minority Leader Harry Reid, and there were talks behind the scenes to grant Patty Murray of Washington a title befitting her role without a fractious debate.

“We have a tough road ahead of us with Republicans in control of Congress and a new Republican president who campaigned on dividing our country and rolling back all of the progress we’ve made over the past eight years,” Murray said.

Murray was shifted up to the No. 3 post as assistant Democratic leader while Debbie Stabenow was slotted in the No. 4 spot in the reshuffled deck as chairwoman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. 

There probably would not have been suspense on the Republican side even if the GOP had lost the majority, but the outcome was even more predictable given the election results.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was re-elected as the chamber’s Republican leader Wednesday during a closed-door organizational meeting.

The Kentucky Republican was nominated by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen.-elect Todd Young of Indiana, and received a standing ovation from the caucus.

Young said he highlighted his faith in McConnell’s leadership in his remarks to the caucus. “I trusted Mitch McConnell because I had direct interaction, especially over recent months,” Young said.

The top GOP leaders are all white men. But in the 114th Congress McConnell did appoint four counsels to broaden the discussion at the leadership table, which included two female senators.

Nebraska’s Deb Fischer, who served as one of the counsels, expects those positions to continue in the next Congress. She was also not concerned with the lack of diversity at the top.

“I think it’s important that we put the best person in the job,” Fischer said. “Diversity is good, whether it’s age or prior work experience, life experiences, gender, whatever, that’s always good to have it in the mix. When it comes down to a certain position, I think you always have to look at the qualities of the individuals.”

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Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner joins the GOP leadership team as chairman of the NRSC. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

McConnell’s leadership team in the 115th Congress will largely remain the same as this term, following the Nov. 8 elections that kept Republicans in narrow control of the Senate. Cory Gardner of Colorado was elected the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, succeeding Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who was term-limited.

Democrats have no one chomping at the bit to replace Sen. Jon Tester of Montana at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“There’s not a long line of volunteers to head up the [DSCC], even when it looks like it’s going to be a great year for us. Since Citizens United took the cap off, the fundraising responsibilities are dramatically different than they were a few years ago,” Durbin said. “There are only a handful [of senators] who enjoy getting on the phone call, looking for money. Most of them have already done this job. The rest of us grit our teeth when we have to do it.”

There is speculation that Maryland Sen.-elect Chris Van Hollen, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, could be drafted.

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