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The Senate Leadership Outlook

Democrats

Majority Leader

Presiding over a slightly enlarged Democratic majority, Harry Reid will begin his seventh year as majority leader and his ninth atop his party’s increasingly diverse and independent-minded caucus. He will have, at most, 55 votes under his leadership. But unless Reid, of Nevada, can change the Senate’s filibuster rule, he will generally need 60 votes to move any significant legislation. Reid’s tendency to get carried away in his rhetorical attacks on opponents is balanced by his parliamentary and tactical skills. While he is sometimes not the most effective spokesman for his party, he is admired by Democratic colleagues as a seasoned fighter for the middle class. The majority leader’s ability to advance President Obama’s agenda will be put to an early test when the post-election session that convenes this week addresses scheduled tax increases and automatic spending cuts. The biggest challenge for Reid, who will turn 73 next month, will be finding at least a few Republicans willing to work with him on fiscal issues and on other Democratic priorities, including an overhaul of immigration law. How much Reid can accomplish will also depend on whether he can bridge differences with the Republican-controlled House.

Majority whip

Reid’s top vote counter and close adviser since 2005, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, will continue to be a vocal advocate of liberal causes, both on the floor and on the television news programs Reid eschews. It’s Durbin’s job to devise floor strategies that can move legislation through the Senate’s political minefields and around procedural constraints. This could become more challenging with a caucus that includes both liberal freshmen and Democrats who won re-election this year by turning away from their party and President Obama. Durbin, who turns 68 next week, has a close relationship with the former Illinois senator now in the White House. Durbin’s participation in bipartisan deficit reduction talks with other senators might help build a coalition backing a compromise solution to the tax and spending standoff between Obama and congressional Republicans.

Caucus Vice Chairman

Charles E. Schumer has leveraged his No. 3 position in his party’s hierarchy to expand his power and influence. The New Yorker, who turns 62 this month, is part deal maker, part message maestro and part long-term strategist, the latter role one he has particularly embraced. Reid specifically designed the position to match Schumer’s outsized ambition and love of the limelight. In helping his party select policy fights, Schumer seeks to match the need for action with a potential political payoff. For example, he played a large role in the majority’s decision to push through the Senate a bill to renew domestic violence programs. He also helps Reid decide when it is best to cut a deal with Republicans. Schumer has forged close relationships with many colleagues through his effective fundraising as head of the Senate Democratic campaign organization.

Republicans

Minority Leader

Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell declared two years ago that his top goal as Republican leader was preventing Obama’s re-election. No doubt he also hoped to be elevated to majority leader in the 113th Congress, given the opportunities the GOP had to pick up Democrat-held seats this fall. But neither objective worked out, and now he is back, and apparently unchallenged, for another stint as minority leader. The GOP strategy during Obama’s first term has been to filibuster significant Democratic legislation, as well as related procedural motions, effectively imposing a 60-vote requirement for advancing the majority’s agenda. Democrats will not have a filibuster-proof majority in the new Congress. But with Obama newly re-elected by a convincing margin, McConnell will need to walk a fine line. As Republican leader, he needs to take care that Democratic charges of obstructionism do not stick going into the 2014 midterms, when he will be seeking a sixth term of his own in a state where Republicans chose tea party-backed Rand Paul as their Senate candidate in 2010, even though McConnell favored Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Since then, McConnell has courted Paul and has been careful not to offend the right. McConnell, 70, is known as a deal maker, and his ability and willingness to bargain will be tested immediately when the post-election session addresses tax increases and automatic spending cuts scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.

Minority Whip

A former Texas Supreme Court judge and state attorney general, John Cornyn brings broad experience to his likely role as successor to retiring Jon Kyl of Arizona as the No. 2 Republican. But his party’s net loss of two Senate seats in last week’s elections has raised questions about whether Cornyn should have done more as head of his party’s election committee, particularly in solidly red states such as Montana and North Dakota. It appears unlikely, however, that Cornyn will attract a challenger in his bid for whip. The most likely rival, South Dakota’s John Thune, made clear last week he will not challenge Cornyn, who has effectively been campaigning for the job since Kyl announced his retirement early last year. Cornyn is seen as smart and thoughtful on a broad array of policy matters, particularly immigration, an issue important to his border state. He supports a broad immigration overhaul with tougher border enforcement and looser visa restrictions on skilled foreign workers. In his role as his party’s top vote counter, he will need to corral a more conservative GOP conference, a task likely to challenge even a cowboy-boot-wearing Texan.

Conference Chairman

John Thune took over the GOP’s message machine last January when Lamar Alexander of Tennessee stepped aside. The ambitious South Dakotan moved quickly to stress his party’s opposition to the Obama administration’s domestic priorities. Thune, 51, was considered a possible running mate for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and earlier this year was vague about whether he would challenge Cornyn for whip. But he announced last week he will seek another term as conference chairman, perhaps not wanting to gamble his presidential ambitions on a potentially messy internal leadership fight. A former three-term House member and a staunch fiscal and social conservative, Thune has close ties to House Republican leaders and has been an advocate of gun rights as a co-chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus.

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