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The 7 biggest congressional stories for Minnesota in 2015

Rep. John Kline
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Rep. John Kline, 68, made waves in September when he announced he wouldn't be seeking re-election in 2016.

The first year of the 114th U.S. Congress is in the books, and true to form, lawmakers did a whole lot of nothing — save posturing — in 2015. Only three times in the last 30 years has Congress passed fewer laws.

But it wasn’t without its moments — some historic. After Republicans drubbed Democrats in the 2014 midterms to secure both chambers for the first time in a decade, a rising right flank in the GOP pulled off a stunning coup of Speaker John Boehner. The day before, Pope Francis became the first sitting pontiff to address a joint session of Congress. 

Minnesota’s members of Congress were not without their moments either, from engineering key bills to attracting national controversy. Here were the biggest Minnesota -centric stories coming out of Washington in 2015:

1. John Kline hangs it up
Kline, 68, made waves in September when he announced he wouldn't be seeking re-election in 2016. For years, observers had wondered when Kline, who has served in Congress since 2002 and in various Washington posts for before that, would hang it up and head home to Burnsville.

For most of 2015, signs pointed to Kline sticking it out. He was raising campaign cash days before his announcement, and Democrats and Kline's foes on the right were sharpening their usual attacks. But his decision was clear in hindsight: If re-elected, Kline would have been termed out of his chairmanship on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. It’s not fun going back to the rank-and-file after that.

Kline — who emphasized the decision was not motivated by health or political concerns — ensured he'd be able to go out on his own terms, and with public praise from then-Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama to boot.

2. The wide-open race in the Second Congressional District
Talk about ripple effect: Kline's announcement immediately made the 2nd District a top priority for Democrats and Republicans. It’s one of a small handful of open seat, swing district contests in the entire country, and will attract millions in outside cash.

On the DFL side, Angie Craig and Mary Lawrence had entered the race before Kline's announcement. But, buoyed by the prospect of not facing a powerful incumbent, both candidates have upped their fundraising games.

But the real story has been on the Republican side. Kline has carried the GOP banner in CD2 since 1998, and you'd think his stepping aside would clear the way for a new crop of Republicans who’d been itching for a shot at Congress. That field didn't materialize, with bold-faced potential candidates like Mary Pawlenty staying away and others finding the prospect of Congress unappealing.

Now, the GOP has a five-way race with no clear front-runner, though buzz has focused on radio host Jason Lewis and former Minnesota state Sen. John Howe. With three other candidates in the mix, though, and potentially another on the way, CD2 is in for a long, fascinating 2016.

3. The death of No Child Left Behind
After announcing his retirement, Kline said it was "just kind of time" — but that turned out to have more than one meaning. Taking the prospect of another contested re-election off the table gave him the time and ability to aggressively go after a longtime goal: replacing No Child Left Behind.

It was a tough road, but Kline and his allies in Congress ultimately succeeded in December, when the president signed a comprehensive new K-12 education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act, into law. In both chambers of Congress, the bill received overwhelming support from both parties — a true rarity on Capitol Hill these days.

The final product will reduce Washington’s role in K-12 education and delegate decisionmaking in key areas — testing, intervention in low-performing schools — to the states. With few exceptions, stakeholders in the education bill are pleased, and Kline now has a signature legislative achievement to cap his 14 years in Congress.

4. Minnesota Republicans steer clear of GOP revolt
The big national story in Congress this year was, without doubt, the unlikely ascendance of a few dozen House conservatives. Calling themselves the Freedom Caucus, these hard-right legislators leveraged their orthodoxy as a bloc, along with their influence in right-wing media, to score major policy victories and claim the scalps of the ideologically impure — namely Boehner.

Through all the infighting, Reps. Kline, Paulsen, and Emmer stuck with leadership and moderates on nearly every key vote. They generally avoided commenting on the rebellious right-wingers, on or off-record. With an allegedly sympathetic ear in new Speaker Paul Ryan, the Freedom Caucus may be more powerful than ever, but don’t ask the Minnesota Republicans about it.

5. Minnesota Democrats buck the White House
There wasn’t quite as much outright chaos on the Democratic side of the aisle this year, but the minority party made its share of headlines — particularly over the summer, when House Democrats and the White House feuded publicly over trade. Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal ran up against stiff opposition from progressives who see it as a job-killing, planet-destroying mega-NAFTA.

Led by Rep. Keith Ellison and others, Democrats nearly succeeded in derailing the trade deal and denying their president his most sought-after second-term achievement. 2016 could see the re-emergence of TPP on the Hill — at the very least, on the campaign trail — so this bitter fight isn’t going away soon.

6. Emmer 2.0
Where’d the bomb-thrower go? When Tom Emmer was elected in 2014 to succeed Michele Bachmann in the Sixth District, you might be forgiven if you thought the former radio host would continue his predecessor’s tradition of fiery conservative rhetoric.

Instead, Emmer has cultivated a far different profile in Washington: as a member, he’s proven studious on policy, measured in his words and actions, a team player for the GOP, and well-liked by Democrats. Depending on your political persuasion, you might call it a pleasant surprise — or a huge disappointment.

The New Emmer has prompted Minnesota politicos to speculate whether he has another run at statewide office on his mind. That may be. For now, though, he’s proving adept at his day job.

7. News forcing lawmakers’ hands
Between ISIS, #BlackLivesMatter, guns, Trumpmania, and beyond, members of Congress were far from immune from the effects of a big year in news.

Sometimes the raging noise machine of the 2016 campaign trail made its way into the rarefied confines of the Capitol — like in December, when Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims reached a fever pitch. Rep. Keith Ellison, one of two Muslim congressmen, was forced to respond — which he did in his characteristic way.

At other times, the country’s debates not only forced lawmaker responses, but derailed actual legislation. That was certainly the case in July, when GOP leadership snuck an amendment on an appropriations bill that would’ve maintained the use of the Confederate flag on some public lands — until Rep. Betty McCollum, who was on the floor, noticed what it was. It provoked national outrage, and the bill was effectively killed.

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Comments (1)

Emmer

I'm doubly glad I didn't vote for him for Governor.

A) Emmer 1.0 would have been a disaster as Governor

B) Emmer 2.0 (who would not be in the House if elected Governor), is turning out to be the thoughtful conservative who I can disagree with but still respect.

The question is whether a thoughtful conservative can survive a primary challenge in that district.