By Brendan Timmons, Leadership Directories
By any measure, the 2014 midterms were a disaster for the Democratic Party. Not only did the Republicans increase their majority in the House, but they nearly swept the board of Senate races, taking control of the Senate for the first time in eight years. But liberal Senate Democrats, rather than being chastened by their party’s decimation, may see their prominence grow in the 114th Congress.
One unintended consequence of the election has been to liberalize the Senate Democratic caucus. The November election thinned the ranks of moderate Senate Democrats from red and swing states, leaving behind a caucus that mostly consists of progressive senators from solidly blue states. Many post-mortem analyses of the election argued that the Democrats’ messaging was muddled; a smaller caucus that has a more unified ideology could present clearer positions that contrast more sharply with the opposing party. In addition, now that they are in the minority, the remaining liberal senators no longer need to moderate their positions in order to save their politically vulnerable brethren from taking tough votes.
To be sure, there is still a sizable moderate Democrat contingent in the Senate. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and Jon Tester (D-MT) all hail from red states, and can still be expected to vote with the Republicans on several issues. The Senate Democrats’ role as President Obama’s pocket veto will certainly be diminished in the 114th Congress. But, the new Democratic minority has already proven to be a thorn in the Republicans’ side; this week, they filibustered the Keystone XL Pipeline, preventing its passage.
Furthermore, with the defeat or retirement of several moderate Democratic committee chairmen, the ensuing shuffling of committee seats has resulted in liberal senators landing in leadership roles on some of the Senate’s most important committees. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who was a key supporter of the oil and gas industry and had served as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was defeated in a runoff in December. Her replacement as the top Democrat on the committee, however, is Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who has long fought against offshore drilling in her home state. The Banking Committee had been chaired by a moderate, Tim Johnson (D-SD), whose friendship with the financial industry has been well-documented. In stark contrast, the new ranking minority member, Sherrod Brown (D-OH), is a vocal advocate of financial reform and has long been an opponent of Wall Street. Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) retirement resulted in Patty Murray’s (D-WA) promotion to the top position at the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which allowed Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to take her position at the Budget Committee. Both are staunch liberals.
Of course, ranking members’ influence on legislation is limited; in committees, most controversial legislation comes down to a party line vote. However, if used correctly, the role can come with increased prominence on Capitol Hill and a larger voice in the media. In addition, the ranking member’s personal staff is augmented by committee aides, who are more specialized and better equipped do research and conduct investigations into issues under the committee’s jurisdiction. Finally, the ranking members will become chairs of their respective committees if their party takes control of the Senate again. The Senate’s liberals, therefore, are in a key position to affect policy now, and will be ready if the Democrats can regain the majority in 2016.