Elizabeth Warren, the Senate’s newest star, arrived at the Capitol on Wednesday for new-member orientation with a reputation as a champion for consumers and the strong backing of liberal Democrats. She is sure to be a thorn in Wall Street’s side in the 113th Congress.
Since her defeat last week of Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts, many are wondering whether Warren will follow in the footsteps of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former senator who also had huge name recognition but went right to work after her election in 2000 immersing herself in the issues and cultivating alliances with more-senior members of the chamber.
(PICTURES: See New Members on the Hill for Orientation)
Known for her take-no-prisoners approach on Wall Street regulation, Warren once vowed to leave “blood and teeth” on the floor if necessary to get Congress to pass legislation establishing a robust consumer financial-protection agency.
But to become an effective player in the Senate, Warren might need to emphasize collegiality and avoid letting her fame get in the way of a focus on legislative policy.
“There [are] all these questions about whether she’ll go the Hillary Clinton route or not, and does her homework and builds bridges and alliances, as opposed to coming in right away with guns blazing,” said Cornelius Hurley, the head of Boston University’s Center for Finance, Law, & Policy. “Her history is one of guns blazing, so for her to go the [Clinton] route would be somewhat out of character, but she’s wise enough to make that strategic decision.”
Warren, a Harvard law professor, has had to tone down her firebrand style before. When President Obama tapped her to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was her brainchild, she began a charm offensive, sitting down to coffees and lunches with members of the financial community and reaching out to Republicans in Congress. Ultimately she was passed over to become the head of the CFPB because her nomination was considered too controversial to get Senate confirmation.
On the campaign trail, Warren revived her anti-Wall Street rhetoric.
“Wall Street CEOs—the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs—still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors and acting like we should thank them,” she said at the Democratic convention.
The question is, which Warren is coming to the Senate: the revolutionary known for sharp rhetoric, or the strategic schmoozer who cleverly courted key power brokers across the aisle during her stint as the CFPB caretaker?
“That is the $64,000 question,” said one former Senate Democratic aide.
But Warren’s most ardent supporters certainly do not want her fade into the background.
“The Democrats would like to have her visible,” said Dean Baker, the codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who supported Warren to lead the CFPB.
The Oklahoma native frequently boasts of her humble roots and has become a darling of the Left, a status that was only heightened by her Senate win that reclaimed for Democrats the seat previously held by liberal lion Edward Kennedy.
Given her zeal for financial-regulatory issues, Warren is widely expected to win a seat on the Senate Banking Committee.
No matter where she lands, extraordinary expectations await her.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which led a “Draft Warren” campaign to urge her to run for the Senate and raised money on her behalf, hopes to see her speak out in defense of Social Security and Medicare and become a stalwart defender of the landmark Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation.
“We predict a very big Elizabeth Warren bandwagon effect, where if she takes the lead on an issue many of her colleagues will quickly follow,” said Adam Green, the group’s cofounder. “She is in a unique position.”
Tony Fratto, a former aide to President George W. Bush, said that some Republicans might find common ground with Warren on the quest to rein in banks thought to be “too big to fail,” but would find it much harder to provide help if she adopts a style that is too polarizing.
“You can be the person who breaks glass,” said Fratto, now with consulting firm Hamilton Place Strategies. “Or you can be effective finding bipartisan consensus. It’s a very short list of people who can do both.”
Dan Friedman contributed
This article appears in the Nov. 14, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.