After last fall's electoral defeats, a shaken Democratic Congress returned to Washington to assess its political position and leadership, during what would turn out to be a surprisingly productive lame-duck session. Following a close look at the roster, both the House and the Senate Democratic caucuses elected the same leadership slates that oversaw punishing losses in 2010.
Yet with so many veterans culled in November -- 63 in the House and six in the Senate -- a new generation of leaders needs to step up inside the Democratic Caucus to regain electoral ground and continue pushing their party's priorities in the face of an increasingly conservative Republican Party.
That's why Democrats are raising the profile of some newer members and emphasizing a congenial caucus where moderate and conservative members can still find a home.
"Many members of the Democratic Caucus voted against the health-care bill, and I expect many of them might vote for repealing the health-care bill," sophomore Rep. Jared Polis explains. "They're still welcome members of the big-tent Democratic Party, and their presence in our caucus is the key to the Democrats winning back the majority. ... We don't enforce the same type of discipline on our members as the Republicans have in the minority, and I think that shows the Democratic Party better reflects the diversity of our country."
Backers of House Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Leader Harry Reid, and their allies don't hesitate to point out that these veterans have experience regaining a majority -- 2006 seems like a lifetime ago -- but the optics of keeping their leadership intact don't suggest that voters taught the president's party a lesson. Most Democrats seem to think that their political sins were those of omission: Nothing they accomplished was particularly unpopular, but the absence of robust economic growth in the wake of the recession left them vulnerable to Republican critiques.
Still, after the election, wags in the House wondered if there was anyone with the chops to replace Pelosi if the party wanted to do so. A symbolic challenge from Blue Dog Democrat Heath Shuler aside, few saw any Democrats with the skills of Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, or Kevin McCarthy, the new troika of relatively young GOP pacesetters who provided energy and welcomed the Tea Party to the GOP opposition putatively led by the charisma-challenged John Boehner. In the Senate, a vacuum left empty by the deaths of Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy and the retirement of several senior senators is already being filled by a cohort of newer members.
A party's center of power in opposition inevitably moves from the senior legislators who get things done to the political operators who can break the majority's initiatives and look ahead to the next election. The new leaders of the two chambers' political campaign committees, New York's Steve Israel in the House and Washington state's Patty Murray in the Senate, will be key to finding the way back to the majority. So, too, will the party's message and steering committees, led by newer members. "Let's be realistic; the minority party has limited legislative abilities," a Democratic strategist told the Prospect. "You have to find other ways to develop your ideas and sell them and use that as an opportunity to guide some message and policy positions. Members are always your best messengers back in the district when everybody is hitting on the same agreed-upon themes."
New faces will also emerge as different legislative committees come to the fore. With Republicans promising a fight over spending and taxes in the House, the Budget Committee, where the minority Democrats are led by increasingly indispensable Chris Van Hollen -- who will also be a member of the Democrats' leadership team -- and Ways and Means, where Sander Levin is the ranking member, will see much of the policy-making action.
Every new Congress has its own identity, and after a canvass of members, activists, operatives, and staff, we identified some of the up-and-coming members expected to play a major role in shaping the Democrats' response to the resurgent Republicans.
The Senate's Young Guns
"In this next Congress, the contributions from individuals will not be limited to just the top-tier group, the people who have been here forever," Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska says. "Our caucus [meetings] are not just Tuesday; they're multiple times [a week], because we're saying we all have value, we've got great talent."
Begich, elected in 2008after serving as mayor of Anchorage, is the newest member of the Senate's leadership team, beginning the year as chair of the Democrats' Steering and Outreach Committee. Along with a cadre of similarly minded Westerners who joined the Senate after elections in 2006 and 2008 -- cousins Tom and Mark Udall of New Mexico and Colorado, Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Jeff Merkley of Oregon -- Begich has challenged his older colleagues to reform the Senate rules that allow minority obstruction, while, with the exception of the more liberal Merkley's support, urging them to the center on economic and energy issues.
"If there's one thing that I've been saying in the last year: 'We gotta reach beyond the Beltway here,'" Begich says. Learning from the trials of Reid, who faced a tough re-election in part because he was identified with Washington rather than his home state, Begich rarely lets a sentence slip by without working in a reference to Alaska and his small-business experience. To him, the lesson of 2010 wasn't necessarily about policy but relationships -- Begich wants his colleagues to sit down more with business, energy, and veterans' groups that feel alienated from the Democratic Party.
On the substance, though, Begich doesn't fault Congress' efforts last year, just their outreach. Lauding a bill passed by Democrats to increase lending and cut taxes for small business, he notes that part of the problem was communication: "We did it, but the real question now is, How is it working? What do we need to do to improve it? Are you aware of it?"
While he preaches a more moderate course on energy (he is, he'll remind you, from Alaska) and regulation, Begich doesn't make any bones about supporting filibuster-reform efforts championed by Tom Udall, Merkley, and Bennet: "People want us to do the job, not play these 30-hour time-clock games."
The Bridge Builders
Leadership in the legislature is all about making friends and building reliable majorities. Unlike the GOP, Democrats have a much bigger challenge thanks to their emphasis on an ideologically broad-based national party. Anyone watching last year's major legislative efforts saw how messy that process made governing, but only a large majority can accumulate the raft of accomplishments we've seen in the previous two years, from health-care reform to the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gay service members.
This will be especially important in the House, where moderates in tough districts saw the bulk of the caucus' losses. Now, Texas' Henry Cuellar, Minnesota's Tim Walz, and Colorado's Jared Polis aim to unite their party's disparate stakeholders around a new kind of message. "What the minority affords, and we've seen the Republicans enjoy it, is a messaging advantage of being able to criticize rather than have the responsibility of governing," Polis says.
Walz, an educator and Iraq War veteran, decided to run for Congress after some of his students were turned away from a George W. Bush re-election rally for sporting John Kerry stickers. He's established a moderate voting record that reflects his swing district, striking a populist tone on economics and offering a libertarian bent on social issues. A favorite of Pelosi's, Walz is expected to be an important voice on military issues.
Cuellar, a leader among the conservative Blue Dogs and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, nominated Pelosi for minority leader, a sign of her support from two key Democratic groups. Along with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a star whose rise stalled briefly when she wasn't tapped to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Cuellar has been appointed to lead the Democratic Caucus' steering and messaging operation, with a special focus on budget issues.
And while Polis, the first openly gay man elected to Congress, might be expected to be popular only among progressives, his background as a businessman and entrepreneur enables him to work with more conservative members on economic issues. He's also spent his first two years in Congress earning respect for his engagement with the issues and well-received participation in Democratic Caucus meetings.
"Nancy is great at consensus building; there's no one better," explains one Democratic House leadership aide, who asked to remain anonymous while discussing internal caucus politics. "[House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer] has got conservative Dems on board, and he's decent with the progressives. ... Future leaders need to span all these different parts of the caucus in order to be as successful."
The Up or Out Caucus
Whenever congressional operatives assess their party's leaders, one question weighs heavily in the back of their mind: How long will they stick around? The same political and fundraising talents that make a member an important legislative leader also give him or her the potential to seek higher office -- whether moving from House to Senate, to a statewide position, or even running for president.
Fears that a talented legislator might not be around long can make members suspect that a rising star may be more about a future race than winning today's battles. Those with ambitions, meanwhile, may not have time for the rigors of leadership with the campaign trail calling.
In the Senate, Virginia's Mark Warner has been an important figure since his election in 2008 -- representing a large purple state and providing key policy and political expertise. But Warner is known to be eyeing the presidential nomination in 2016, making other senators leery of throwing their weight behind him in inter-caucus fights. That doesn't mean Warner won't be influential, but he won't command the attention of senators more committed to the chamber.
In the House, a number of respected members face the same curse. Iowa's Bruce Braley, another populist voice frequently mentioned as a rising leader, is thought to be considering his state's governorship. Ohio's Tim Ryan and Connecticut's Chris Murphy, a member of the "majority makers" class of 2006, are both expected to make a run for the upper chamber in fast-approaching election cycles. Should they change their mind, though, they'll have a good chance to make an imprint on the next Congress.
With all the emphasis on keeping the coalition together, it can be easy to forget Democrats' progressive stalwarts. In the House, Maryland's Donna Edwards has come into her own as a talented communicator and in her second term, has become a real leader in the Progressive Caucus, which has increased its ability to command respect under a Democratic president. In the Senate, safe blue-state senators like Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse and Oregon's Jeff Merkley are expected to provide liberal gut checks if Democrats don't stick to their guns on issues most important to the party's progressive base.
Despite November's losses, a few new Democrats were elected around the country. Winning in a tough year has bolstered their bona fides among their colleagues, and Pelosi and Reid have in the past made a habit of spotlighting new members to ease their path to re-election. "In a bad year, the people that emerge are usually really strong politicians and have the potential for leadership -- the Rahms, the Van Hollens, the statewide runners," says Dean Aguillen, a lobbyist at Ogilvy Government Relations who served as Pelosi's membership director from 2002 to 2007.
In the House, nine freshmen have bolstered the party's members, and few face higher expectations than Rhode Island's David Cicilline, whose political talents and experience as Providence's mayor are well regarded. Karen Bass, another new representative, was a previous speaker of the California House of Representatives, giving her a head start over novices who aren't used to the rigors of legislative life.
In the Senate, where individual members have a greater share of power, experienced political operators, especially those who have little fear about re-election, will have their voices heard. New members Richard Blumenthal and Chris Coons -- formerly Connecticut's long-serving attorney general and a veteran county executive from Delaware, respectively -- boast years of political experience and safe seats and can be expected to have more than the usual immediate impact in a shrunken caucus that will have to hang together to push Democratic priorities.
The Future Heavy Hitters
The biggest question of all, of course, is who will step up to set the tone in each chamber.
In the House, Maryland's Chris Van Hollen is frequently mentioned as a future majority leader or speaker. His work heading the DCCC the past two cycles has been lauded despite last year's losses and has earned him Pelosi's respect and many friends among members he helped elect. If he can square off successfully with the Republicans' Paul Ryan in coming budget battles, he will earn his spurs as a legislator, too. While Van Hollen may also be tempted by the Senate, a seat is unlikely to open before 2016 at the earliest.
Perhaps most surprising of all, Minnesota's Al Franken is named as a potential inheritor of the mantle borne by Kennedy, Dodd, and Feingold -- a big-name legislative leader. Franken combines a high profile and comfort in the spotlight with a genuine passion for public service. Most important, Franken has earned the respect of his colleagues. While some looked askance at the former funnyman's political aspirations, his success as a freshman senator caught many skeptics by surprise. Demonstrating a collegiality and willingness to put in the hard work to grasp complex policy issues, he has played an important role in lawmaking, including in helping to pass this summer's financial-reform bill.