Mississippi senators will gain clout, could be thorns for Obama

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., June 19, 2014.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., June 19, 2014. MCT

Mississippi’s veteran senators will gain clout when the resurrected Republican majority takes control next year, with Sen. Thad Cochran hoping for a second turn as the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee and Sen. Roger Wicker likely to lead two or even three subcommittees.

Cochran and Wicker, who line up as allies on most issues, seemed in interviews to strike different tones, perhaps reflecting an internal debate as Republicans ponder how to approach deep impasses with the Democratic administration in advance of the 2016 presidential election.

Wicker spoke of finally being able to bring bills to the Senate floor, saying he believed that the approach of Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada to “shutting down the process . . . had begun to smell bad to the American people.” He also talked of challenging President Barack Obama’s “overreach” – his use of executive power to break gridlock with Republicans on issues such as global warming.

Cochran’s rhetoric was more conciliatory. He emphasized a desire for a “mutually respectful” relationship with Democrats.

“I don’t look for polarization,” he said. “I look for a sense of responsibility to do what’s best for our country and our state of Mississippi at the same time. I’ll be trying to get things done.”

If the 76-year-old Cochran lands the appropriations post, he’ll be in a strong position to channel more federal dollars to Mississippi. However, Cochran said that he could instead be asked to lead the Agriculture Committee, which he chaired in 2003-2004 and on which he currently serves as the ranking Republican.

With 36 years in the Senate, Cochran is the second most senior member of the Republican caucus and in a strong position to claim his first choice, but he said he’s also happy to head the Agriculture Committee.

“I would be comfortable and very proud to serve as chairman of those committees – one or the other, or both,” he said.

Cochran easily won a seventh term Tuesday but could owe his re-election to African-American Democrats who crossed over to support him in last June’s primary runoff election, in which he barely fought off a fierce challenge from tea party upstart Chris McDaniel.

“That’s been the entire history of my career in Congress,” Cochran said. “I’ve always had an active political outreach to African-American constituents. . . . My entire career has been built around a bipartisan approach to representative government in my state.”

Wicker spoke as if it’s a foregone conclusion that Cochran will again lead the Appropriations Committee, which he chaired in 2005 and 2006, and hinted that the state’s senior senator may take a much tougher approach than his rhetoric suggests.

The committee, Wicker said, “can spend money, but it also can prevent money from being spent on various regulations and executive decrees that we view as overreach.”

“I would think that the Appropriations Committee would be calling in representatives from the various discretionary agencies and inquiring as to whether congressional intent is actually being followed, or whether the president is seeking to act when he really doesn’t have the constitutional authority,” Wicker said.

He said that the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent adoption of limits on carbon emissions from power plants to fight global warming – a policy that both senators have publicly challenged – would be “one of many” such issues that could be addressed.

Wicker, who is in his second term, hopes to chair panels for the Armed Services, Commerce and possibly the Environment and Public Works committees. Wicker said that he would enjoy leading the telecommunications subcommittee in the Commerce Committee and heading the sea power panel on Armed Services.

He also is making a bid to win the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. In that post, he would be the party’s chief Senate fundraiser for defending 24 Senate seats up for election in 2016 and presumably would oversee advertising attacks on Democratic challengers.

With leadership elections next week, Wicker began “in earnest” on Wednesday to campaign for the job, said his chief spokesman, Ryan Taylor.

Roll Call reported Thursday that Nevada Sen. Dean Heller is also seeking to chair the committee, and that incoming freshman-elect Steve Daines of Montana might enter the race, too. Since Jan. 1, 2013, the committee has reported raising $81 million, well shy of the Democrats’ $125 million, reflecting a shift of conservative donations to outside groups that are not required to identify their contributors.

A senior Republican aide, who was not authorized to speak for the record, said that Wicker is pitching his candidacy by emphasizing his fundraising prowess.

In 2013 and 2014, Wicker participated in over 40 fundraising events across the country for the Republican senatorial committee and raised more than $2.2 million for it – seventh most in the caucus, the aide said. In addition, Wicker’s political action committee gave more than $300,000 to Republican candidates, and he led an effort that raised $1 million for Cochran in the runoff campaign, the source said.