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Elizabeth Warren’s Star Rises Amid Confrontation

Image: Elizabeth Warren

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is taking aggressive steps to push the Democratic Party and President Obama to the left, in effect trying to be the true leader of the party even as Obama remains in office and Hillary Clinton is heavily favored to be the Democrats' next presidential nominee.

The first-term senator's decision to forcefully urge other Democrats to oppose a government funding bill because it would weaken a plank of the Dodd-Frank bill that regulates Wall Street is a direct confrontation with her party’s leadership: top Senate Democrats negotiated the compromise that Warren is blasting, and it was endorsed by Obama. Most House Democrats, following Warren's lead, opposed the legislation, nearly scuttling it on Thursday.

The bill, which funds the government for the next year, narrowly passed the House, just hours before funding ran out, and is expected to be approved by the Senate. But her role in leading the opposition illustrated the rapidly-rising influence of Warren, who is now battling with the Obama White House on key issues, taking an official leadership post in the Senate and being strongly urged to run against Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Senator Warren, we're ready to show you that you have the support needed to enter--and win--this presidential race

Her campaign against this bill, which would relax some regulations on derivatives, is one of a series of moves Warren has made over the last month to urge Democrats to shift to the left, not the political center, in the wake of the drubbing the party took in last month’s elections. Warren is also leading the opposition to Antonio Weiss, President Obama’s choice to be the under secretary for domestic finance at the Treasury Department, arguing that Weiss will too closely follow the views of Wall Street since he is currently the head of global investment banking at Lazard.

She is publicly urging President Obama to be cautious about reaching agreements with the newly-empowered Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“The solution isn’t for the president to cut deals — any deals — just to show he can do business,” she wrote in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post.

Some have compared Warren to Texas Republican Ted Cruz, another freshman senator who has also implored his party that not all compromises are the right policy.

But Warren is unlikely to lead a government shutdown over the weakening of Dodd-Frank, as Cruz did last year to block the implementation of Obamacare. And the other key difference is that unlike Cruz, who is preparing for a presidential campaign, Warren probably won't run in 2016.

Her supporters are begging Warren to enter the race, to give the populist wing of the Democratic Party a chance to either block Hillary Clinton’s likely nomination or force Clinton to confront directly her differences with Warren on stage in debates during the primary. A group of 300 former Obama staffers released a letter this week urging Warren to run.

Rich Lowry: Elizabeth Warren a Hero, Rock Star for the Left 0:52

“We'll host an Iowa launch event in Des Moines, where the road to the White House begins. We'll go all in. Hire staff. Open offices. Run ads in major media outlets. Mobilize an army of volunteers. Reach as many voters as we can. Senator Warren, we're ready to show you that you have the support needed to enter--and win--this presidential race,” wrote the leaders of the liberal group MoveOn.org this week, in an op-ed published in the Huffington Post, as they announced their “Run Warren Run” movement to draft her.

Warren has said repeatedly again she won’t run for president and has eschewed the repeated visits to Iowa and New Hampshire and other moves that would signal she is seriously considering such a campaign. A presidential run would have obvious challenges for Warren, who has much less electoral experience than Obama did when he successfully challenged Clinton in 2008. (Warren, a longtime law professor, had never served in elective office before entering the Senate in 2013.)

But Warren is elevating herself politically, even if she opts against a presidential run. She has been a favorite of liberals since her Senate campaign, because of her populist rhetoric and sharp questioning of witnesses at congressional hearings, which have turned into popular viral videos. But she mostly focused on giving speeches about the high costs of student loans and other economic issues in her first 22 months in the Senate, not trying to use her grassroots popularity to shape the broader Democratic Party.

Those days of limited ambition for Warren seem to be over. Last month, she accepted a newly-created post in which Warren is supposed to be a "strategic policy adviser" for Senate Democrats, a job which has not been completely defined but ensures she will regularly offering advice to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. She wrote the Washington Post op-ed only a few days after the election, in a clear attempt to influence the party’s direction.

And there are signs her new approach is already working. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a longtime Obama ally, has said he too will oppose Weiss’ nomination, and many other Senate Democrats are also considering voting down Weiss. That would be a huge victory for Warren over Obama and his team, who are actively trying to build support for the banker.

Warren’s attacks on the government funding bill seemed to embolden other Democrats, with even House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi following Warren’s lead and also becoming a very strong opponent of the provision.

Warren has not indicated this publicly, but her moves suggest her role in 2015 will be holding Obama accountable to the political left. The president has talked about reaching compromises with Republicans on reducing corporate tax rates and enacting free trade agreements, both goals Warren is skeptical of.

And Warren could be headed toward a confrontation with Clinton as well. Whatever stance Warren takes in Congress, Clinton will likely be asked by reporters on the campaign trail if she agrees with it. And the liberals in the Democratic Party will be expecting that the answer from Clinton is yes.