State faces post-election loss of clout in DC

WASHINGTON-No matter what happens on Election Day, Connecticut’s congressional delegation will take a hit in terms of political power. Whether it’s a body blow, or a minor knock, is less clear.

And how a reshuffled delegation will work together raises some intriguing questions. For starters, who, if anyone, will emerge as the group’s new go-to leader, organizing the push for Connecticut’s priorities in Washington?

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Chris Dodd’s departure: ‘A significant dip’ in the delegation’s influence

The most obvious and certain change is the retirement of Sen. Chris Dodd, a five-term Democratic incumbent, chairman of the powerful Banking House, and Urban Affairs Committee, and the 8th most senior member of the Senate.

“We’re going to lose some power when Sen. Dodd leaves, no matter who wins his seat, because we will be replacing a 30-year veteran with a freshman,” said Rob Simmons, the former Republican congressman from Connecticut’s 2nd District.

“And our other senator, Joe Lieberman … is an independent, so he is not wired in either party,” noted Simmons, who made an unsuccessful bid to replace Dodd but lost out in the primary to Republican candidate Linda McMahon.

Christopher Barnes, a top aide to Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, echoed that assessment, saying Dodd’s departure will create “a significant dip in overall power” for Connecticut in the 112th Congress.

“The question is does anything else happen to make it a more junior delegation?” Barnes asked.

Barnes also noted that Dodd now serves as the delegation’s unofficial chief, spearheading key legislative efforts and sometimes channeling requests to the White House. How that void will be filled, said Barnes, remains to be seen.

Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent, will become Connecticut’s senior senator. With Dodd leaving, Lieberman has said he would like to take over the role of leading the delegation. If Democrats retain control of the Senate, Lieberman will likely keep his post as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

But aside from that post, there are questions about how much power Lieberman will actually have. Although he caucuses with the Senate Democrats, Lieberman often bucks (and irks) his erstwhile party. In a closely divided Senate, Lieberman could be a much sought-after swing vote or a marginalized player without a power base.

And the delegation isn’t likely to look to him as a unifying force, if current relations are any guide.

When Lieberman threatened to filibuster health reform over a public option provision, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, said he should be recalled from office. More recently, when Lieberman said he saw no reason to campaign for a Democratic majority in this election, Larson accused him of auditioning for the Republican Party.

DeLauro said she didn’t think there was “any de facto successor” to Dodd as head of the delegation, although she dismissed any suggestion of a leadership void.

“The fact is we’re a small delegation, and we don’t usually stand on ceremony,” she said. “I think we’ll all play our part” in the next Congress.

DeLauro and Larson may both vie to be seen as the delegation’s new point person. But their respective power, now considerable, could be diminished come January 2011, if Republicans take over the U.S. House, as many political handicappers predict.

Larson, a 6-term House veteran, is now the 4th ranking member of the House Democratic leadership, serving as the chairman of the Democratic Caucus.

But that spot could be at risk if Democrats lose control of the House and the party purges its top ranks. Or, Larson could possibly move up the ladder if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., steps aside, making room for others to step up a rung.

Barnes declined to speculate on his boss’s post-election options, except to say that he didn’t think there would be significant upheaval. But even if Larson hangs on to a leadership title, he will still wield a lot less power if his party is in the minority.

Ditto for DeLauro. She currently serves as co-chair, with Pelosi, of the House Steering and Policy Committee, a panel that doles out committee spots and gives her direct access to the Speaker. That job could go to someone else in a new Congress.

DeLauro also chairs a key House spending committee, and she would be demoted to the panel’s ranking member under GOP control.

Simmons argued that one or two new GOP House members from Connecticut would shake up the delegation’s dynamics and could be a significant boost if Republicans take the House majority.

Right now, Democratic incumbent Rep. Jim Himes is locked in a tight re-election contest against state Sen. Dan Debicella in the 4th District. And Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, is an unexpectedly tough re-election battle against state Sen. Sam Caligiuri.

Neither Himes, a freshman, nor Murphy, a two-term incumbent, has built up a significant power base in the House yet. And, Simmons said, “getting Republicans elected from Connecticut can only be beneficial” if the GOP controls the House next year.

DeLauro flatly refused to consider life in the minority, arguing that Democrats would keep their hold on the chamber. And not surprisingly, she also said it wouldn’t help the delegation to have fresh GOP blood.

“The best outcome of this election is we’ll have five Democratic House members. That’s the outcome that gives us the greatest strength,” she said.

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that while the loss of Dodd is significant, Connecticut’s delegation will still have serious sway no matter what happens on Nov. 2.

Lieberman will be a key player in the next Congress, Ornstein predicted, and the role of any new members, even if they are freshman, could add some juice to the team.

For example, if Richard Blumenthal wins, he said that Democratic leaders will probably want to “showcase” him as a bright spot for the party. “He will have a real opportunity, given his experience, to gain some traction,” Ornstein said.

A win by Linda McMahon, the Republican contender to replace Dodd, could signal a GOP takeover of the Senate. And in that scenario, McMahon would likely get a hero’s welcome from the chamber’s top Republicans.