The dynamics in Congress are about to change – as will some of the power players on Capitol Hill.
As Republicans take control of the Senate, they will control both chambers for the first time since 2006. With that shift comes new faces and some old ones with new positions of power. Welcome to the new Washington, which Republicans are calling the “new American Congress.”
Here are some key lawmakers who might not be household names just yet but are worth watching closely in 2015:
Sen. James Inhofe
The Oklahoma Republican has served in the Senate for 20 years, but this year he is likely to finally ascend to the position he covets – head of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees everything from air and water pollution to toxic waste. Inhofe, however, is not a tree hugger; he is a leading climate change denier and taking the position mainstream.
Inhofe has spoken at length about his disbelief in climate change, saying once on the Senate floor: “With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it.” He wrote a book called “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”
While Inhofe doesn’t believe the science, he is also opposed to the financial cost of implementing massive changes to how energy is produced and consumed. “Do you realize I was actually on your side of this issue when I was chairing that committee and first heard about this? I thought it must be true until I found out what it would cost,” Inhofe told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in 2012.
While the Senate won’t solidify committee assignments until January, it is expected that Inhofe will sit at the helm and it’s likely Democrats will attempt to tie Republican candidates to Inhofe in the 2016 elections.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz
Rep. Chaffetz is the only House member on the list because, but his new role as head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is sure to put the Utah Republican in the spotlight. Chaffetz replaces Rep. Darrell Issa of California who can no longer serve in the top committee spot because of Republican-imposed term limits on committee chairmanship.
During his time, the bombastic Issa has launched countless probes that include Benghazi, the IRS and the fast and furious gun smuggling plan and subpoenaed just as many officials. He successfully held Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, an extremely rare move.
While Chaffetz has yet to take the gavel, he has shown similarities to the outgoing chairman. Like Issa, Chaffetz does not shy from the spotlight and jumps at the opportunity express disdain over President Obama and his policies. Chaffetz, however, has vowed that his chairmanship will be different. He told reporters that he will focus more on the “government reform” component of the committee’s responsibilities rather than digging up political drama, according to Roll Call.
Sen. Joni Ernst
This freshman Republican from Iowa won one of the most closely watched senate races in the nation in 2014 in a state that had not had an open senate seat since 1984 that Iowa has had an open Senate seat, making this a rare opportunity.
Ernst will be closely watched for several reasons. Her excellently run campaign has shown the Republican establishment that she has the political savviness to succeed in Washington. In addition, she joins a small group of women Republican senators, and with Republican efforts to diversify the party, her role is likely to become prominent quickly.
Perhaps giving Ernst the most leverage as she enters her freshman year in the Senate is her representation of a critical presidential nominating state. With the 2016 presidential race underway, Ernst will be sought after by Republican presidential candidates seeking an invite to Iowa. Potential contenders in the senate are likely to seek out Ernst to co-sponsor legislation, join news conferences, and take fundraising trips. That’s a lot of notoriety when new senators are expected to say little and observe a lot.
Sen. Chuck Grassley
The senior senator from Iowa is no newcomer, having been first elected in 1980. But Grassley could get a new jolt of notoriety if the right circumstances unfold. As Republicans step into control of the Senate, Grassley is in line to take the helm of the influential Judiciary Committee, which could oversee immigration reform and Supreme Court nominees. Of course, Congress must decide to take up immigration once again and there must be a Supreme Court vacancy before either of those topics to be addressed, but the significance of the chairman is critical in setting the committees agenda and guiding the Republican caucus on policy and position.
Grassley’s ascent to the chairmanship became an issue in senate campaign between fellow Iowans Ernst and Rep. Bruce Braley. During an event with trial lawyers, Braley disparaged Grassley, who is well respected in the state, saying that if Republicans won, a “farmer from Iowa who never went to law school” would run a committee responsible for overseeing extensive legal issues.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren
The Massachusetts Democrat is already becoming quite well-known, as far as senators are concerned. She has made a name for herself in progressive circles for her anti-Wall Street crusades and support for the U.S. worker. In addition, she is often mentioned as a potential presidential contender, even though it’s mostly by her supporters. Regardless of if she runs or not, Warren is sure to cause a stir in the Senate.
After a thumping in the midterm elections, Democratic leadership named Warren to their team, adding a populist and fresh voice to the team that has been in place for at least six years. It’s unclear how Warren will influence Democratic policy and strategy or how much weight she will be given in Democratic leadership, but if her tactics in the final weeks of the 113th Congress in December are any indication, Warren could be a critical force.
Upset with provisions added to the government funding bill, Warren lead a charge that included House Democrats to remove the unwanted provision that would ease some banking regulations. While she didn’t succeed at getting the measure stripped from the bill, she sent a signal to both Republicans and Democrats that she will cause a stir if necessary.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp
The North Dakota Democrat has maintained a low profile since her election in 2012, but she could find herself in a new role in the Republican-controlled Senate. Heitkamp is ranked as one of the most moderate senators in the body and she will likely be seen as a swing vote. That means Republicans, who will have 54 members, not enough to break a filibuster that requires 60 votes, will lobby her to join them on some issues. She may also see pressure from Democrats to stay on their side and reporters will always be looking to see where Heitkamp stands on issues and which way she will lean. Expect to see her name in Congressional news a lot more over the next two years.