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As Recess Begins, Winners and Losers Emerge on the Hill

By Ben Pershing
With more than seven months of the 110th Congress gone and the August recess (blissfully) upon us, it's a good time to take stock of the year so far.

The legislative battles of 2009 have already produced a good crop of congressional winners and losers. Some winners (Al Franken, Sonia Sotomayor) and losers (John Ensign, William Jefferson) are so obvious they don't need much further explanation, but the people below all seemed worthy of attention. Disagree with this list? Sound off in the comments section below.

Winners

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.): "Herding cats" doesn't begin to describe the task Pelosi has in trying to keep the fractious House Democratic Caucus in line. She muscled a climate change bill through the House, and she played a major role in persuading Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee to back a health-care bill. Both pieces of legislation included tough negotiations with conservative Blue Dogs, whom Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal, was supposedly unable to handle.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.): The case for Reid is fairly simple: He hasn't messed up a single important vote this year, has drawn no real opponent back home in what was supposed to be a tough reelection race, and has positioned himself to be the dealmaker on health care once the Finance Committee is done. The White House leans on him heavily for guidance and, while he'll never be the greatest on-camera leader, he's been steadily effective.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas): It's still very early, but 2010 is starting to look like a bounceback election for the GOP, thanks in part to the efforts of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee chairmen. Both men have done well raising money and recruiting candidates. Now they have to see how (and whether) health care and the economy impact their party by next November.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.): If health-care reform gets signed into law this Congress, these two lawmakers might get the most credit. Baucus has drawn criticism from the left for his insistence on negotiating with Republicans, but he seems to be crafting the only health-care bill that might actually get 60 votes in the Senate. Waxman took plenty of heat from both the right and left, but managed to negotiate his way to a compromise bill that passed the Energy and Commerce Committee. If and when the two chambers sit down for conference negotiations, expect Baucus and Waxman to take the lead.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.): Ensign's loss was Thune's gain, as the South Dakotan was able to move up a notch to become the No. 4 Senate GOP leader, and he is expected to keep rising as his career progresses. Thune also boosted his national profile among conservatives by sponsoring a gun-rights amendment that failed narrowly but still caused plenty of heartburn for Democrats.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.): Franken's (belated) win finally brought Senate Democrats to that special 60-vote mark, and Schumer deserves the lion's share of credit for making that happen. Schumer helped right the Franken campaign ship when it was listing last summer, then made sure the Minnesotan had the right legal help once the recount saga begin in November. And Schumer helped talk the right candidates into other key races (Ohio and New Mexico, for example) in the last two election cycles, which helped Democrats build their current majority and increase their chances of getting their agenda passed this year. For what it's worth, he also led the fight to defeat the aforementioned Thune gun amendment, and may single-handedly manage to make Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) a strong candidate to hold her seat in 2010.

Reps. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.): A massive Democratic majority in the House means that the party now includes plenty of moderates, conservatives and rural lawmakers. Ross and Peterson's increased clout is evidence of that. Ross took the lead for Blue Dogs on the health-care bill, holding up Energy and Commerce passage for weeks until he was satisfied with the deal. As Agriculture Committee chairman, Peterson played a similarly vital role in making the climate change bill more palatable to his colleagues (and the farm lobby), while drawing praise from Pelosi for his role in getting the measure passed.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.): Is the House minority whip over-hyped as a rising GOP star? Perhaps. But he has drawn the White House into engaging him directly more than once this year, which is more than most other Republican leaders can say.


Losers

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.): Can one person be both a winner and a loser? Yes! People are complicated. For all her success with two major initiatives and keeping a rowdy caucus in line, Pelosi may well have made a strategic mistake by pushing the climate change bill -- always her biggest priority, while Obama's was health care -- too early in the year. Yes, it passed, but it left a lot of bruised feelings in the process. Some House Democrats now wonder whether they took a needlessly tough vote on a bill the Senate is nowhere close to considering. And the CIA/torture controversy probably didn't do her party any favors either.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.): Remember when he was a player in the Senate? Okay, his vote still matters a bit, but seeing him have to wait during Sotomayor's confirmation hearing until nearly all of his colleagues had spoken before he could talk (endlessly) told you everything you needed to know about his new position in the Senate since he switched parties. And while Specter became a Democrat because he was in danger of losing the GOP primary, now he faces the possibility that he could lose the Democratic primary -- or even the general election -- instead.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Robert Bennett (R-Utah): These two senators have gotten plaudits from pundits for working together to craft a genuinely bipartisan health-care reform proposal. The only problem: It doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Neither man is a member of the "Gang of Six" that is currently negotiating the Finance Committee's compromise bill, and so --despite the good press -- they appear to be stuck on the outside of the reform debate looking in.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah): He walked out of the Finance Committee negotiations on health care not long before they actually got close to a deal. And he had to play second fiddle on the Judiciary Committee while Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) got to lead the charge against Sotomayor. Not a terrible year for Hatch, but he's certainly had better ones.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.): The Ways and Means chairman is under investigation on so many fronts that it's tough to keep track, and he's already blown more than $1 million on legal bills. He was nudged by Pelosi into moving climate change legislation when he really wanted to do health care, and then when health care did come up, Waxman's committee got the bulk of the attention. How much longer does Rangel want to stick around?

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.): After conservative Democrats basically got their way on the Energy and Commerce panel, Woolsey and her colleagues in the Progressive Caucus have done their best to let Pelosi know that they won't back any health-care bill that doesn't include a "robust public option." But it doesn't seem that Democratic leaders are taking her threats all that seriously, perhaps because they don't believe that 60 liberal members will really vote against a genuine compromise bill if it's the only game in town.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.): Dodd recently announced that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Thankfully, his prognosis is said to be very good, and political friends and foes alike are rooting for Dodd to make a full recovery. But health issues aside, Dodd has certainly had a rough year. He is still dogged by questions -- and investigations -- stemming from the "VIP" mortgage he received from Countrywide Financial Corp. And polls suggest he faces a very tough reelection race next year, making him the most vulnerable Senate incumbent in the country.

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.): There's something called a "making a graceful exit," and then there's the opposite of that -- hereafter known as "pulling a Bunning." Never the most popular senator, he managed to make even more enemies by stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that he was headed for a loss in 2010, then criticizing his colleagues when he finally did bow to reality and announced plans to retire.

UPDATE 4:25 PM: Befitting Bunning's increasing marginalization in the Senate, he didn't show up for today's Sotomayor confirmation vote until every other senator had cast his/her vote, prompting an awkward delay of several minutes -- with 90-plus senators sitting patiently in their seats -- before Kentucky's junior senator finally arrived. Unlike his colleagues, Bunning didn't vote from his chair, instead just signaling thumbs down while standing in the back of the chamber.

Perry Bacon Jr., Paul Kane and Shailagh Murray -- all of them winners -- contributed to this report.

By Ben Pershing  |  August 6, 2009; 1:57 PM ET
Categories:  Dem. Leaders , GOP Leaders , House , Senate  
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