ANALYSIS — Lawmakers return next week for a busy June, with Senate Republicans tested by politically wrought gun talks and President Joe Biden dealing with a spate of crises and headaches.
As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sends coded messages to his negotiators (Listen for: “mental illness” and “school security,” not actual restrictions to gun access), Biden also is rolling the dice on his economic message. McConnell is more likely to get his desired results on the guns debate and in convincing voters — who already give Biden low marks on the economy — that Republicans should run Congress come January.
Those realities and challenges are reflected in the power rankings below — a look at the current most influential people in and around Washington — which will be a regular feature in the subscription-only CQ Senate newsletter.
Best of the best
(1) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: The minority leader started the year relatively quietly. He has reemerged in a big way. He has advocated for Ukraine in its war with Russia. He has not backed down when mocked and insulted by former President Donald Trump. Your correspondent noted a shot at Trump during a May 19 interview on Fox News when the Kentucky Republican said the party is “well on its way” to nominating “fully electable candidates.” Those are not all the ones Trump has endorsed. McConnell has solid reasons to believe he is besting the 45th president in the party’s primary hunger games.
He’s also positioning himself to once again become the Senate majority leader months after the Supreme Court of which he was an architect is expected to overturn the landmark abortion decision Roe v. Wade. More Americans want Republicans (45 percent) than Democrats (42.8 percent) to run Congress. McConnell’s party has been on the rise in FiveThirtyEight’s generic congressional ballot since last November. What’s more, the super PAC affiliated with McConnell entered May with over $72 million on hand. But he has methodically positioned his caucus well to the right as bipartisan mass shooting prevention talks continue. In Kentucky on Thursday, he urged the negotiators to focus on the “actual problem,” which he said is “mental illness and school safety.” Will most voters agree?
(2) The Roe Five: Their bombshell was leaked. But expect a second explosion as soon as that Supreme Court decision terminating Roe is officially announced. If the five conservative justices — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is expected to side with the three liberal jurists — follow through and end Roe, they will hand McConnell and Trump, architects of this high court, a huge collective victory. It will, in conservatives’ minds, justify McConnell blocking then-President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick B. Garland because 2016 was an election year, then fast-tracking Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett because 2020 was an election year.
(3) Senate Republicans: They have held the line against several top priorities of Biden and congressional Democrats behind McConnell. This group has avoided the kind of in-fighting that has, at times, struck the other three party caucuses this year. In a different era, votes or threats against bills that would help ease baby formula shortages and prevent some pandemic-hit restaurants from going under might have been a difficult choice for Republicans. Not these days, when keeping true to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” philosophy is what matters most. It’s all about owning the libs — and Senate Republicans have a monopoly on that.
But they might soon find themselves in the majority, albeit likely short of the 60 votes needed to pass legislation — and a Democratic president with a veto pen. Infighting could soon find the Senate GOP. There could be plenty to fight about, including the fate of the filibuster, especially if a Republican occupies the White House in January 2025. The midterms are seemingly theirs to lose, and they’ve got lots of cash in the bank. But will moderate voters punish them in November for a, so far, refusal to join Democrats on any serious legislation that might curb mass shootings? And what might the electoral effect be in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s term?
Best of the rest
(4) Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer: The majority leader is playing a very tough hand. He is putting House-passed bills on the floor in a midterm election year and forcing Republicans to vote “no” — again and again. Put simply: What else could he do to give his vulnerable members something to use to attack Senate Republicans? Last month, while announcing the chamber would hold a procedural vote on a House-passed bill to combat domestic terrorism, the Democratic leader acknowledged that he had set up the vote as a “test” for Senate Republicans to “help silence the voices of white supremacy” and “reject the views of MAGA Republicans.” What’s more, Schumer has amped up his attacks on Republicans of late. He has dubbed the MAGA wing of the GOP “radical” and “idiots.” The super PAC aligned with the New York Democrat, Senate Majority PAC, had $43.7 million on hand on April 30.
(5) Sen. Rick Scott: The former Florida governor is, as they say, having a moment. As head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, his caucus’s campaign arm, Scott has overseen an operation that had $45.1 million on hand at the end of April. The NRSC boasted at that time that the amount was “the highest cash on hand in the history of either the NRSC or the DSCC.” And while the DSCC recently told Roll Call it was poised to report even more, $45.9 million, Scott has used his leadership post to elevate himself. His economic plan might have the support of nary another Senate Republican, but it vaulted Scott into a feud with Biden. Of note: Scott was recently in New Hampshire, a key early primary state to headline the annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner.
(6) Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.: Unlike others listed here, the duo leading the House’s Jan. 6 Capitol riot investigation make the rankings not for political reasons but because of what they might make public during televised hearings next week. They have spoken to many former Trump aides and associates, Republican members and others involved in the planning leading up to that violent day. The Justice Department is monitoring their findings, which could lead to criminal probes and possibly indictments. Depending on what the committee unveils in its public hearings, that could include some sitting GOP lawmakers. That’s significant, even in these partisan times.
(7) House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy: The California Republican does not have to rank much higher than seventh to become the next speaker. He has positioned himself so that slow and steady will win that race. Sure, he has had to deal with members on his conference’s far right, including messy scandals involving Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina and others, but he has mostly kept his ship, as Trump would put it, as a well-operating machine. Or well enough. His subpoena from the Jan. 6 committee is more badge of honor than stain in conservative circles. To help his push for the gavel, McCarthy continues his efforts to raise campaign cash. One source recently said “it’s his life.” The Congressional Leadership Fund, a PAC aligned with the GOP leader, had $100.7 million on hand as of April 27.
(8) Speaker Nancy Pelosi: Yes, the California Democrat is the one sending Schumer the bills he is using to force GOP senators on the record on hot-button issues. Yes, she is the one overseeing their crafting and keeping her caucus in line to pass them. Yes, she remains House Democrats’ top fundraising force. Yes, she recently headlined the biggest one-time fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and other party campaign organizations, raking in over $4 million. And the House PAC that is aligned with the two-time speaker had $59.8 million in the bank in late April — and more on the way amid what Democrats say is an ongoing a Roe-fueled campaign cash avalanche.
But she also has had perhaps her most in-fighting caucus ever. Democrats have been going at it publicly over the revised New York congressional map. And House Democrats, according to just about every widely followed projection, are about to get shellacked in November. Messaging bills and fundraising serve a purpose, but her members are getting restless.
(9) President Joe Biden: Does anyone in Washington need a win more than the commander in chief? His legislative agenda is going nowhere. He has been unable get another COVID-19 aid package through Congress, and the prospects to deliver more relief to Americans dwindle by the day. Inflation remains at a 40-year high. Gas prices are expected to soon make their annual turn upward. There’s a baby formula shortage, the root causes of which his team knew about in February. Three-quarters of those polled recently by YouGov and CBS News think the country is careening in the wrong direction, with 70 percent opposing Biden’s handling of inflation, and 44 percent approving of his overall job performance.
The war in Ukraine rages, and his latest gaffe brought warnings of a war with China. Yet the longtime politician has flexed some fundraising muscles. He reportedly raised over $7 million by headlining just five in-person fundraisers this year. It is not yet clear whether Democratic candidates will seek the president’s attendance at rallies on their behalf down the stretch. But that does not mean Biden cannot make a difference in some contests by merely speaking at a closed-door fundraiser to help buy TV, radio and digital ads. Last week, the president admitted he did not realize the severity of the baby formula shortage when a U.S. plant was shuttered earlier this year — after a room of industry executives said they had known instantly what was coming. An aloof president or bad West Wing staff work? Either way, it’s a bad look for an embattled president. His Thursday evening address on gun control felt late, and on Friday he tried to assuage average Americans’ economy worries ... while taking a long weekend at his Delaware beach house.
(10) Donald Trump: The former president appears a bit less powerful within his party, but is still its loudest and most influential single force. But Trumpism and what outgoing North Carolina Rep. Cawthorn calls “dark MAGA” might be more popular in the party than the former president himself is. Despite Trump’s claims, his endorsement record this cycle has more losses than he would ever acknowledge publicly. He suffered an embarrassment on May 24 when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp walloped David Perdue, the former senator whom Trump strongly backed, in their GOP primary. Trump’s arch-nemesis, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who refused to overturn his state’s 2020 election results, also was victorious. It is still not clear whether another top Trump-endorsed candidate, Mehmet Oz, will prevail in a Pennsylvania primary headed for a recount.
Still, Trump’s shadow lurks over everything the party does. His various PACs and political organizations are sitting on a massive war chest — even if they curiously appear to spend frugally. For instance, Trump’s main PAC, Save America, had $106.7 million on hand at the end of April. If Trump starts throwing money around as GOP candidates need to make ad buys late in general election races, their messages could suddenly sound a whole lot more MAGA.
Also receiving votes: GOP Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; John Fetterman, Democratic Senate nominee in Pennsylvania; Russian President Vladimir Putin, with his war in Ukraine an irritant for both U.S. parties; Mike Pence, as his support for Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race in defiance of Trump went well; Chinese President Xi Jinping — Biden said what now about defending Taiwan with American forces?
Methodology: CQ Roll Call staff compiled the rankings using a metric including poll numbers, fundraising, strategic legislative wins, court decisions, endorsements of and victories by political candidates, caucus chaos and overall influence.