13 Unlikely Congressional Newsmakers of 2013

Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL) speaks during a press conference, on Capitol Hill, July 9, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
Dec. 19, 2013, 2:52 p.m.

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.

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