Clout for Maryland lawmakers in Congress slips after midterm elections

Maryland will be one of 16 states with two minority party senators next year.

Republican gains in the midterm elections mean Maryland's Democrat-heavy congressional delegation will have far less clout when lawmakers gavel in a new Congress next year, casting doubt on prospects for a long list of state priorities from federal employee pay to environmental regulations that could affect the Chesapeake Bay.

The state's federal lawmakers — and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski in particular — are also asserting a more active role in politics at home as Democrats try to regroup after the party's losses in the gubernatorial election. That effort has exposed fractures in the usually cohesive party.

Mikulski, who in 2016 will be the only statewide incumbent up for election, has called a meeting of Democratic leaders for Monday to discuss how the party will respond to Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan's defeat of Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown. The invitation was leaked and some Democrats quietly expressed frustration with the internal note.

A Mikulski aide declined to comment on the matter.

The Republican takeover of the Senate next year means Mikulski must relinquish the chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee — a blow to the state's influence in Congress. Sen. Ben Cardin, meanwhile, will lose chairmanship of an environmental subcommittee focused on water quality, including in the bay.

Maryland will be one of 16 states with both senators serving in the minority in the new Congress. The state's senators will become top-ranking Democrats on their respective committees, but it is the Republican chairs who will wield control over schedules and legislation.

"Ranking members are only ranking members," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Committee chairmen are much more able to bring home the bacon."

Republicans gained at least eight seats in the Senate and a dozen in the House in last week's midterms. A Senate contest in Louisiana will be decided by a runoff election next month.

Mikulski and Cardin said that they will seek opportunities to work with the new Republican majority.

"Though I won't have the gavel I'll continue to play a significant role," Mikulski said in an interview before her note to state party leaders became public. "Appropriations cannot move without bipartisanship."

Mikulski and Cardin have helped shield federal employees from cuts proposed by House Republicans in recent budget fights but, as members of the minority, they're unlikely to have as much pull. Maryland is home to more than 300,000 federal workers, one of the highest concentrations in the country.

Republicans are also preparing to target a host of Environmental Protection Agency regulations, including a rule to extend federal oversight of intermittent or seasonal streams — some of which flow into the Chesapeake. Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota and other GOP lawmakers have vowed to block funding for implementation of the extended oversight.

"This rule would expand the EPA's regulatory authority to everything from small wetlands to ditches and it needs to be stopped," Hoeven, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. "We're working to do it now and will make it a high priority in the new Congress."

That GOP effort is the type of initiative both Maryland senators would ordinarily have a hand in stopping.

Still, while Mikulski and Cardin are left of center within the Democratic caucus, they have nevertheless found agreement with Republicans on some issues. A Mikulski bill that would require states to conduct background checks on child care providers has won broad support and is all but assured final passage during the current lame-duck session of Congress.

Cardin, meanwhile, has bipartisan backing for a bill to ban human rights abusers from entering the country or accessing U.S. banks. Similar language crafted by Cardin that applied only to Russia was signed into law in 2012.

Maryland's junior senator may also be in a good position to benefit from the Senate switch over in the long run. Cardin is a senior lawmaker on several committees — including Foreign Relations, Environment and Public Works and Small Business — meaning that if some Democrats retire ahead of the 2016 election he could be among the first in line for a chairmanship.

For now, Cardin said, "there's still going to be opportunities" for his legislative goals in the new Congress.

"The agenda will be set by Republicans," he said, "but how you work on the playing field won't change all that much."

The fact that Democrats will be in the minority in the Senate for the first time in eight years is also likely to renew speculation in Washington about whether Mikulski will retire before her next election in 2016. Mikulski would be 80 as she runs for a sixth term.

Most Maryland observers believe the state's senior senator will run — partly in hopes of reclaiming the Appropriations chairmanship — but there was a flurry of speculation in Washington about the possibility of her retirement when she was last up for reelection in 2010.

Mikulski is the state's most senior lawmaker and has long been its most popular politician. Since she won election to the Senate in 1986, no challenger has come within 20 percentage points of her.

A desire to head off retirement rumors now might be one reason Mikulski sent a memo to state party officials calling for Monday's meeting in Annapolis to discuss "the path to new leadership" for the party and "victory in 2016."

"Election results have cast upon me the role of titular leader of the MD Democratic Party," Mikulski wrote in the email. "I ask for your help and counsel at this time."

But the fact that the internal e-mail was leaked to the website Center Maryland was an indication that it rubbed some state Democrats the wrong way. Several said they felt she was dictating the agenda without fully consulting with others.

Still, others said with Gov. Martin O'Malley now a lame duck, responsibility for organizing the party — and working against future losses — absolutely falls to the state's senior senator.

Before the new Congress is sworn in, lawmakers first must wade through what's left of this year's agenda. During the lame-duck session, Congress must approve a new spending bill to avoid a government shutdown and consider Obama's request for $6 billion in emergency funding to address Ebola.

Democrats are also hoping to confirm as many of the president's nominations as possible in coming weeks, while some Republicans have called on them to limit the effort to non-controversial appointments. It is not yet clear whether Carolyn W. Colvin, the Maryland woman whom Obama nominated in June to lead the Social Security Administration, will receive a vote by the end of the year.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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