The U.S. House drew most of the attention in Congress this past week, with the stunning defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Virginia primary Tuesday, setting off a scramble for the resulting openings in the Republican leadership.
But the Senate quietly went about its business, too, and in a way that illustrates how legislating and politicking intertwine — particularly for Democrats like Mary Landrieu, running for re-election from Louisiana this fall.
The Senate Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill to deal with the foul-ups in the Veterans Affairs health system, giving both Republicans and Democrats something to point to in taking credit for addressing the problem.
Earlier that day, the Senate voted on the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act. Sponsored by Democrat Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, it would allow borrowers to refinance their existing federal student loans at a lower interest rate, offsetting the cost via a new tax on high incomes.
The bill ties in with the Democrats’ election-year messaging, pegged to giving a “fair shot” to the middle class. Party organs churned out news releases touting the bill in the days before the vote. President Barack Obama announced his support, even as he highlighted the issue Monday by expanding a different student-loan repayment program.
Landrieu joined in. She announced she had set up an online calculator on her website showing borrowers how much they would save under the bill. She also released a letter urging support for the House version of the bill, sent to the House Republicans from Louisiana — including Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, the leading challenger to her re-election.
Landrieu has doubled down on the student loan issue. She has introduced a bill of her own — the mouth-filling Middle Class Creating Higher Education Affordability Necessary to Compete Economically Act, aka the CHANCE Act — that would increase the maximum financial award to students under the federal Pell grant program. It’s been referred to a Senate committee. In her publicity announcements, she bundles that bill with Warren’s measure in what Landrieu promotes as her Passport to the Middle Class initiative.
Under Senate rules, it takes the votes of 60 of the 100 senators to advance a bill, meaning the 45 Republicans in the minority can block legislation. In a completely predictable outcome, that’s what they did with Warren’s bill, as the Democrats’ motion to close off a potential filibuster came up four votes short of 60.
Republican senators branded as a political stunt what they called the designed-to-fail effort to push Warren’s measure.
“The Senate Democrats’ bill isn’t about students at all,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, said. “It is all about Senate Democrats, because Senate Democrats don’t actually want a solution for their students, they want an issue to campaign on to save their own hides this November.”
Big changes in short time
If a week is a long time in politics, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said, then a month is a really long time.
It was actually less than a month ago, on May 20, that primary voters in six states locked down the conventional political wisdom: The tea party tide was ebbing, “incumbent” was no longer a bad word, and mainstream Republicans were finding their mojo again. On center stage that night, McConnell easily turned back a right-wing challenge, helping run the overall success record for incumbents to 139-of-139 in the current election cycle.
The first crack appeared May 27, when longtime Rep. Ralph Hall lost to a farther-right challenger in a Republican primary in Texas. But Hall is 91, so non-nonagenarians could maybe rest easy. Then on June 3, Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, of Mississippi, 76, finished second in his primary and was forced into a June 24 runoff by a tea party challenger.
But it was Dave Brat, 49, who really smashed things up: A college professor with tea party leanings, he routed Cantor, 51, despite Cantor’s 26-to-1 fundraising advantage.
Brat’s victory gives heart to other far-right candidates running against better-funded Republicans — candidates like Rob Maness, who hopes to beat out Cassidy and meet Landrieu in a Dec. 6 runoff.
Follow Gregory Roberts of The Advocate Washington Bureasu on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC.