WASHINGTON — Last month, on one of the lawmakers’ first days back in Washington after the election, Democrats elected two senators to potentially contradictory leadership positions.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was tasked with reaching out to progressive groups and making sure they have a strong voice in the party’s internal deliberations.
And Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar won the job focused on finding common ground with Republicans, as Democrats move in to the minority for the first time in her Senate career.
Those two roles — Warren championing liberal causes while Klobuchar serves as lead dealmaker with the GOP — are bound to produce some very different priorities.
Klobuchar isn’t worried about that tension.
“I think we’ve always had different views, from different people, and different styles of how we work with people,” she said. “I spend a lot of time focusing on common ground, and other people spend a lot of time focusing on other things, so I think it’s more the acknowledgement that we have a big tent, and we want that to continue, and mostly it’s an acknowledgement that we want to get some stuff done.”
Figuring out how to get stuff done is Klobuchar’s job heading into 2015. As she and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have described it, part of Klobuchar’s new position is essentially the party’s outreach arm to the GOP. She hopes to find bipartisan bills the two parties can work together to pass, and identify individual Republicans who would be willing to work on legislation Democrats could support. Klobuchar has a deal-making streak, and she has, at least right now, an optimistic view of how Congress can bounce back next session and actually get something of substance done.
“I think the times demand, right now, that we work across the aisle. Everybody knows that, certainly the Senate has been more like that than the House. Now it’s very important,” she said.
Democrats losing influence next year
Democrats will have markedly less influence as soon as the 114th Congress gavels in to session in January. Republicans added to their majority in the U.S. House, and won control of the Senate for the first time of the Obama era, and of Klobuchar’s tenure.
But at 54 members, Republicans won’t have a filibuster-proof majority, which means any legislation will need a fair amount of bipartisan support to pass. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Roll Call he hopes to find ways to cooperate with Democrats to pass bills, and that he plans to open up Senate floor proceedings a bit more than his predecessor, Reid, who kept a tight lid on which amendments could come to the floor in order to save Democrats from having to take tough votes.
If all that’s the case, there’s still a chance that Democrats could help move some bigger bills. By default, they’ll have to be bipartisan, whether it’s Republican-led legislation or something Democrats push during a more lenient amendment process, and that’s where Klobuchar comes in.
In November, Reid said he had asked Klobuchar to put together a list of measures both parties could support and pass. A few bills like that are moving right now, like a bill called the ABLE Act, which sets up tax-free savings accounts for people with disabilities.
Given this session’s constricted timeline — lawmakers hope to pass a budget bill and leave town this weekend — Klobuchar said she expects the new Congress will quickly consider and pass similar “mid-tier” bills early next session. Think something bigger than naming a post office, but smaller than comprehensive immigration reform.
“They’ve already gone through [in the House], and they kind of meandered through the Senate, so we still have a chance, it’s not like it’s over. They are going to have to get blessed [by the House] again,” she said. “I think you’ll see those going through, end of the year and then January, and then I think the tackling of some of these big things.”
Why hasn’t it happened?
The question is why that hasn’t happened up to now, with Klobuchar’s party in charge of half the Congress.
By some metrics, the current Congress has been on pace to be one of the least productive in modern U.S. history. Klobuchar has a diagnosis for lawmakers’ current paralysis, and why she thinks the atmosphere should improve next year.
“Because of the election year, because people went into their opposite warring camps, and the results weren’t good, in terms of getting things done for people,” she said. “I think one of the messages from the American people was, a pox on your house if you’re just going to let things go and fight all the time and not move legislation forward, so I think there will be a mutual interest in moving things forward.”
But if that was a problem ahead of a midterm, it could be exacerbated next session by the beginning of the presidential election cycle. At least a few Senate Republicans are contemplating runs and could potentially push their conference rightward as they go — a move that could risk alienating the very Democrats whose votes they need if the Senate is to pass any legislation this session. But the antidote, Klobuchar said, could be a Senate electoral map filled with potential dealmakers who have an incentive to move things forward.
“They’re going to have some power because they’re going to be up for election: [Missouri’s Roy] Blunt, [Ohio’s Rob] Portman, [North Dakota’s John] Hoeven, [South Dakota’s John] Thune, so I’d look at that too,” she said. “Sometimes Senate stuff matters just as much as the presidential election in this chamber.”
Bills: tax reform, transportation
As for bipartisan legislation that might come up, Klobuchar has a wish list.
A medical device tax repeal will certainly be on the agenda; lawmakers in both the House and Senate are looking for a way to offset a tax repeal’s lost revenue. Klobuchar thinks tax reform as a whole could be possible, as well as measures that would discourage corporations from moving their headquarters overseas, like Medtronic’s flight to Ireland.
Congress has to tackle a long-term transportation bill, and Klobuchar said tax reform could add revenue to that effort. She wants to tackle workforce development through community and technical colleges, student loan relief and Congress’s white whale, immigration reform — though a much less sweeping package than the Senate moved this year.
All of that, of course, depends on what Republicans want. They’ll be in charge, they’ll set the agenda, but given their numbers, they’ll also need some Democratic help to get anything done. Klobuchar knows that, and she said about three months of Republican control will indicate how they intend to run the chamber — inevitable anti-Obamacare votes and all.
“It really starts in January,” she said. “I wouldn’t judge the first week, my guess is there will be a lot of votes that were predictable in the first month.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry