State’s Standing Shifting

Jan 25, 2009
In The News

WASHINGTON — With a congressional delegation of six Republicans and only one Democrat, there is no question the state’s standing in the nation’s capitol took a major hit in last year’s elections.

A Democrat is now in the White House for the first time in eight years, and Democrats added significantly to their majorities in both houses of Congress.

Oklahoma’s voice no doubt will be muted compared to what it has been in the past. That should be especially true when it comes to big-picture issues such as taxes that are important to Oklahomans.

But, as Congress completes its committee assignments and other organizational duties, the picture for individual members of the Oklahoma delegation appears mixed, with several possibly having more influence.

Rep. Dan Boren
As the only Democrat in the state’s delegation, Rep. Dan Boren clearly is the big winner as his party now enjoys the kind of power it has not seen in Washington since the first two years of the Clinton administration in the 1990s.

That automatically gives Boren influence that can be used in various ways in Congress, such as ensuring the legislation he sponsors will be considered by committee chairmen.

Even though he is only in his third term, Boren’s standing with veteran members of Congress and others in Washington can be enhanced somewhat by the congressional career of his father, University of Oklahoma President David Boren.

The congressman’s influence in the state also received a boost because, again as the only Democrat in Congress, Boren will help the Obama administration fill federal posts back in the state.

There’s some irony in that because Boren supported his party’s nominee for president but withheld a formal endorsement.

Sen. Tom Coburn
If the first legislation passed by the new Senate is any indication, the state delegation’s biggest loser in last year’s election appears to be Republican Sen. Tom Coburn.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, armed with a majority that is almost filibuster-proof, has served notice that Coburn cannot wreak havoc on Reid’s efforts to control the Senate schedule by placing and keeping holds on scores on bills.

In an early and successful test of his new majority, Reid even scheduled a rare Sunday vote on a lands bill that Coburn tried to block.

Others also may view Coburn’s crusade against federal spending a bit differently in the wake of his unexpected vote for the $700 billion bailout bill last year.

Coburn likes to cite the relationship he had with then-Sen. Barack Obama, which began when their wives met and resulted in a bill sponsored by Coburn and co-sponsored by Obama to track government spending.

Their agenda on taxes and other national issues, however, would not seem to link up.

Sen. Jim Inhofe
Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe has forged his own unexpected working relationship with Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who succeeded him as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Inhofe retains his position as that panel’s top Republican, a post he has used in the past to steer millions of dollars into various Oklahoma projects.

He expects to play another leading role as the committee and then the Senate take up another massive rewrite of the transportation law and a major water resources bill.

More immediately, Inhofe also thinks Boxer and he will be on the same page when it comes to boosting infrastructure spending in the upcoming economic stimulus package.

The two lawmakers, however, come down on opposite sides when it comes to the global warming issue, and the Democratic gains in last year’s election should move at least the debate toward Boxer’s side.

He also moved up a step in seniority on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is the ranking member on that panel, but Inhofe could turn out to be a leading conservative voice when it comes to certain defense issues.

Rep. John Sullivan
Republican Rep. John Sullivan faces a more mixed picture. Sullivan retains his position on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a highly sought panel. However, California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman wrestled its chairmanship away from veteran Chairman John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat. Waxman is viewed as more liberal when it comes to certain issues such as global warming, and he is expected to be much more aggressive in pushing that kind of legislation through the committee. Given the enhanced Democratic majority, conservative Republicans such as Sullivan no doubt will find it more difficult to amend or stop such efforts.

"Now I’m just going to have to speak even louder in a more heavily Democrat-controlled Congress,” Sullivan said.

Rep. Frank Lucas
Republican Rep. Frank Lucas’ influence should grow considerably after being named the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, a post he is expected to use to make sure Oklahoma’s farm interests have a voice.

At the top of his list of priorities is to track the implementation of the current farm law. Lucas also will be involved in weekly meetings with leadership on the GOP agenda. He conceded that Republicans will have to worker harder to protect their constituents’ interests against policies pushed by the Democratic leadership.

Rep. Tom Cole
Republican Rep. Tom Cole, whose last two years were more than a bit bumpy, is beginning the new Congress as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Traditionally membership on that committee is a huge boost to a lawmaker’s clout and can be an enormous help to an entire delegation. It can come down to making a difference on whether a specific project gets funded.

Seniority can lead to becoming a subcommittee chairman, a so-called "cardinal" whose influence grows even more. Cole, however, is considering running for governor, so that option may not be in his future.

To get on that panel, Cole had to give up the House Armed Services Committee, a tradition for his 4th District seat for decades, and the House Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight on tribal issues. A member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, Cole is believed to be the only member of a tribe now serving in Congress.

Rep. Mary Fallin
Republican Rep. Mary Fallin is in her second term, but she, too, has made key changes that could boost her influence as well as the interests of her district and the state.

Fallin this year switched to the House Armed Services Committee, which allows her a stronger voice on looking after Oklahoma’s military interests.

One of her other panels is the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committees, and that panel will play a leading role in writing a new transportation bill.

Fallin also is taking a more active role in promoting conservative Republican ideas.

Such a move can signal an interest in staying in Congress at least for a while, but, like Cole, Fallin also is expected to consider running for governor.

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