After Rhode Island Democrats pulled off a strong showing in this year’s elections – all three incumbent U.S. congressional delegates up for reelection defeated their Republican opponents – the state’s two senators are weighing their priorities for the next session in Congress. After garnering 65 percent of the vote, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., is entering his second term. And while Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., currently the longest-serving member of the state’s congressional delegation, was not on November’s ballot, the Democratic Party’s net gain of three seats in the U.S. Senate means he will have greater seniority when the new Senate convenes in January.
President Obama’s reelection and the Democrats’ expanded majority in the Senate has led analysts to speculate about Reed’s and Whitehouse’s political futures. Political commentators have floated the names of both senators as potential new members of Obama’s second-term cabinet. Reed has been discussed as a possible replacement to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta or to former Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus, and Whitehouse has been mentioned as a possible successor to Attorney General Eric Holder, according to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
Both senators have publicly denied interest in any Cabinet post. Whitehouse told The Herald he remains focused on fulfilling his pledge to work for the voters of Rhode Island and is not interested in becoming U.S. Attorney General.
“It would be hard not to at least consider it, but I’m virtually certain the answer would be no,” Whitehouse said, adding that if offered the job, he would weigh the offer only as a courtesy to the president.
Whitehouse pledged to spend his next term in office fighting against Republicans’ proposed cuts to Medicare and Social Security, saying he believes many Rhode Islanders feel like they have not received “a fair deal” from Washington in recent years.
“I’m excited about being able to rebalance the economy so middle-class families feel like they’re getting a fair shot,” Whitehouse said. He cited investments in infrastructure, leveling the playing field for U.S. manufacturers against “unfair” competition from Chinese companies and fostering small business innovation as key ways to spur economic growth in Rhode Island and the country as a whole.
A former Rhode Island state attorney general and U.S. federal prosecutor, Whitehouse has emerged in the last few years as a key Democratic figure on the Senate Judiciary Committee, using his legal background to advocate for Obama’s Supreme Court appointees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan during their confirmation processes. Whitehouse also serves on the Budget Committee, Environment and Public Works Committee, the Select Committee on Aging, the Committee on the Judiciary, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and the Select Committee on Intelligence.
With Democrats lacking the 60 votes required to enact cloture and shut down Republican threats to filibuster legislation, the 55-member majority caucus will need at least five Republican votes to advance most bills. Whitehouse, who has witnessed the partisan paralysis in the Senate in recent years, said he is confident Democrats will be able to reach across the aisle in the new Senate next year.
“There’s plenty of room where the other side is prepared to be reasonable,” Whitehouse said, adding that he has managed to work on a bipartisan basis in the past. He cited his work with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on campaign finance reform as evidence that compromise is possible.
Whitehouse predicted that Obama’s reelection will weaken the “atmosphere of fear” created by right-wing Tea Party supporters who silenced more “rational” Republicans inclined to work with the president. “The more reasonable voices in the Republican Party are now going to find a little more courage,” Whitehouse said.
Reed’s office could not be reached for comment, but the senator has publicly denied interest in becoming either CIA director or secretary of defense. Reed told WPRO this month that the president had not called him about either position and that he had made clear that he is uninterested in joining the cabinet.
But the senators’ public denials do not necessarily mean they would turn down an offer, said Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science and public policy.
“It’s rare when people turn down the president when they’re asked to serve,” she said. “I think anybody in the Senate would be interested in a cabinet role.” Schiller added that though both are in contention, neither Reed nor Whitehouse are likely the frontrunners for the defense secretary or attorney general positions.
Political maneuvering considerations may be a decisive factor for Obama as he reshuffles his cabinet. Sen. John Kerry P’02, D-Mass., has also been mentioned as a possible defense secretary, but in picking Kerry, Obama would leave a vacancy in one of Massachusetts’ U.S. Senate seats. Some Democrats fear that former senator Scott Brown, who lost his bid for reelection to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., could be a strong contender in a special election to fill Kerry’s seat and subsequently narrow the Democrats’ newly expanded majority.
“It’s a safer choice to take either Reed or Whitehouse out of Rhode Island than it would be to take Kerry out of Massachusetts,” Schiller said, adding that Democrats would be better positioned to win a special election to keep a Senate seat in Rhode Island than they would be in Massachusetts, where Brown remains a viable threat.
Victor Profughi, professor emeritus of political science at Rhode Island College, said Reed and Whitehouse are both likely more interested in remaining in the Senate because they would have a greater impact on policy than they would in four-year cabinet posts. But Profughi added that if a Senate seat did open up in Rhode Island, many candidates would consider jumping into a special election.
Profughi predicted that Rhode Island General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, both of whom are thought to be likely candidates for the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, would consider running if a Senate seat became vacant. Profughi said Gov. Lincoln Chafee’75 P’14, who served as a Republican in the U.S. Senate from 2000-07 before losing reelection to Whitehouse, could also join the race to return to Congress.
“Chafee’s almost certainly going to have a difficult time running for reelection as governor,” Profughi said, noting it is hard to predict whether Chafee would run for the Senate as an Independent or as a Democrat. Chafee, an Independent who served as a national co-chair of Obama’s reelection campaign and spoke at the Democratic National Convention, has publicly criticized his former party for becoming too conservative.
Schiller also said Taveras and Raimondo would likely contest the Democratic nomination. “There would be a domino effect so other positions would open up,” she said. But she said she expects Chafee has no interest in returning to the Senate.
“Special elections tend to catch everybody by surprise, and unexpected things happen,” said Tony Affigne, a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown and a professor of political science at Providence College. But Affigne noted that despite this uncertainty, Democrats would have a clear advantage in retaining their control over both Senate seats, given the Democrats’ strong showing in the 2012 elections.
Affigne said both Reed and Whitehouse have strong incentives for remaining in the Senate – Whitehouse stands to benefit from his reelection by gaining more seniority, and Reed is in line to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee if the current chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-R.I., retires. Reed, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and a retired U.S. Army officer, has focused on defense policy issues since entering the Senate in 1997.
“For West Point graduates who are combat veterans, there’s probably no position in the world other than president that would be more attractive than Armed Services Committee chairman,” Affigne said.