We all knew coming into 2013 that Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan would be important in the ongoing budget squabble. We also knew that Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz would be worth watching.
But there are several lawmakers who made the spotlight this year, even if only briefly, that we didn't anticipate. Here are 13 of our favorite unlikely newsmakers.
Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla.—Cocaine User
Do we need to say that most elected officials—or anybody else—probably don't want to be in the news because they were caught trying to buy an eight-ball of cocaine? Along with that misfortune, in which he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense, the first-term congressman then faced the humiliation of apologizing before cameras in his home district late at night, before he took a leave of absence and checked himself into "intensive" rehab. Then, the House Ethics Committee decided to investigate. Not a good start.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho—Tea-Party Whisperer
Labrador, a tea-party favorite, gave conservative credibility to the House's bipartisan "Gang of Eight," who negotiated a broad immigration bill earlier this year. He spoke frequently about the need for the reform and making sure undocumented immigrants weren't given an unfair advantage. Labrador became the bellwether for conservatives' willingness to accept some form of legalization—it wasn't there. Labrador was the first to bail from the gang, effectively signaling the end of its legitimacy among House conservatives. He then fulfilled the same role during the government shutdown, repeatedly explaining why conservatives were protesting and why Republicans eventually relented and allowed the government to reopen.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.—Almost Father
At first it was weird that Cohen was having a Twitter relationship with a much younger woman, and during the State of the Union no less. But he came forth to announce that everything was on the up and up. She was his daughter, the ostensible product of a relationship he had with a married woman years ago. But wait! It turns out she wasn't his daughter after all, but the daughter of the person she thought was her father all along, her mother's ex-husband. If you're having a hard time following all of this, try being Cohen, who says he didn't know much about Twitter before striking up a relationship with the daughter/not daughter on Facebook earlier in the year.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.—Boehner Mouthpiece
Need a quote about how the House Republican tea-party wing was making negotiations difficult? Cole was your man. This plain-spoken, six-term lawmaker, who is close to Speaker John Boehner, spent countless hours in the speaker's lobby off the House floor and outside closed-door GOP conferences telling reporters exactly what establishment Republicans were thinking without saying he was an establishment Republican. He said in July that shutting the government down would be a "suicidal political tactic" for Republicans. At the same time, he regularly bashed President Obama for his "my way or the highway" approach and scolded the White House for not "at least considering" Republican ideas.
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich.—Unemployment Guy
No one was more forceful than Levin in protesting the Dec. 28 cutoff of long-term unemployment benefits resulting from the minuscule budget deal. He launched a two-prong attack. First, he began a grassroots campaign focusing on the human side of unemployment. Second, he offered last-ditch policy proposal to keep the program afloat. For his grassroots campaign, he and his staff leaned heavily on local media to tout the number of long-term unemployed in certain areas that would be affected. Levin must have repeated "1.3 million"—the number of people whose benefits will be cut off—hundreds of times a day. On the policy front, he teamed up with Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to keep benefits going for three months using the farm bill revenues. That option was rejected by the House Rules Committee.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.—Sexual-Assault Protester
Sexual assaults in the military isn't an easy topic to discuss, but Gillibrand has been more than willing to take it on. The junior senator from New York made it her cause célèbre as the Senate was deliberating the National Defense Authorization Act, arguing for weeks that the procedures for military personnel to report sexual assaults are inadequate. She tried to amend the bill to remove people in the immediate chain of command from the adjudication of a claim, but that language was left out of the final version of the bill. She expects the proposal to get a stand-alone vote in the Senate in January.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.—Border-Surge Advocate
Hoeven got here two years ago and didn't make much of a splash. That is, until he cooked up a jaw-dropping idea with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to win the Republican votes needed to put a broad immigration bill over the top in the Senate. Just put 20,000 troops on the border. Simple, right? The amendment Hoeven and Corker put together drew criticism from the bill's supporters and opponents, but it had its desired effect in winning over squeamish Republicans.
Until Hoeven and Corker's amendment surfaced, neither senator was involved in immigration. Corker, at least, had made a few waves during other policy debates, particularly when he injected himself into the negotiations over the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation bill. Perhaps Hoeven will make similar moves in the future.
Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.—Background-Check Twins
Toomey, formerly the head of the Club for Growth, and Manchin, one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, were the last hope for gun-control advocates. The unlikely duo, realizing that the gun-control agenda spurred by the Newtown massacre was about to go down, came up with an alternate proposal to Sen. Chuck Schumer's bill to expand background checks to all gun purchases.
Manchin and Toomey's proposal, which had Schumer's blessing, would have exempted background checks for "over the fence" purchases, but it would have required checks at gun shows—a top priority for gun-control advocates. Toomey and Manchin's idea did not get the needed 60 votes on the Senate floor, but their involvement certainly had the gun-rights lobby worried, at least for a little while.
Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky.—Lone-Wolf Sequester Hater
Rogers, a 17-term Republican and chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, emerged as a bit of a lone wolf in the GOP caucus opposing the automatic budget cuts that went into effect earlier this year. He called for an end to the sequester in July. In the past, Rogers had been called "The Prince of Pork" because he has shepherded so many federal benefits to his district. But he shrugged off the cries that he loved government benefits too much, noting that the federal programs are "vital" to his constituents. The area Rogers represents is one of the poorest in the country, with a poverty rate as high as 27 percent and an unemployment rate of 16 percent, more than twice the national average.
Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla.—Food-Stamp Questioner
Southerland went after a sacred cow in the food-stamp program, insisting that it needed a massive overhaul—including a requirement that benefit recipients work 20 hours per week. His amendment to that effect is credited with killing the farm bill on the House floor. The Washington Post did a 3,000-word profile on him that prompted the liberal blog Think Progress to write a rebuttal. Southerland is unapologetic. "Work is a blessing, not a curse," he said. Food-stamp reform is "what I'm about," he told The Post. Though he'll have to get used to names like "starvation expert," as the paper noted.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.—Nuke Proponent
Merkley, a relatively new member of the Senate, was "horrified" at the upper chamber's dysfunction after he was elected in 2008. He emerged this year as one of the top proponents for changing the Senate rules to allow most White House nominees to be approved with a simple majority. He worked closely with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to craft a change to the rules that would allow the glut of unconfirmed nominees to proceed through the Senate. Traditionalists accused him of being a youngster who didn't understand the frustrations of the minority, but he held firm. He drafted a memo to Senate Democrats noting that Senate rule changes actually aren't that unusual. On average, it happens once every other year, the memo said.
Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.—Stater of the Obvious
Dent isn't one to mouth off, but he thought the government shutdown went too far. In the weeks leading up to the shutdown, he predicted that the eventual outcome would be exactly what wound up happening—Republicans would relent and let an almost-clean stopgap spending bill pass with Democrats. He became a media darling overnight for bluntly voicing his frustration on the shutdown and then offering a thinly veiled "I told you so" when it was all over. He is fond of saying now, "Only in Washington, D.C., would stating the obvious [the shutdown wasn't going to stop Obamacare] be considered groundbreaking and newsworthy."
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.—Gun Enthusiast
Heitkamp came to the Senate in 2013 with a mandate not to look too liberal, having barely squeaked through a close election to win the seat of retiring Sen. Kent Conrad, a fellow Democrat. Moderate, yes, but she wasn't expected to abandon Democrats when they most needed her. But she did so anyway on gun control. Heitkamp joined with three other senators in her party, all more senior than her, in opposing a measure to expand background checks on gun purchases. Her vote was a surprise to K Street whip counters, unlike the other Democratic "no" voters—Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mark Begich of Alaska—who were considered out of reach. Heitkamp defended her "no" vote, saying it was the will of her constituents. That didn't stop powerful fundraisers from howling in protest. Bill Daley, Obama's former chief of staff, demanded his money back after he supported her campaign.
This article appears in the December 20, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.