For Florida senators, changes in leadership roles if GOP takes U.S. Senate

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, September 17, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, September 17, 2014 in Washington, D.C. MCT

The Republican Party is in a strong position to take over the U.S. Senate, a development that could have a big impact on the duties of Florida’s two senators: Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio.

With the election less than two weeks away, the GOP is poised to pick up the seats it needs to assume the majority in the Senate. While some races remain hazy, “the most likely result is a Republican majority,” in the assessment of the University of Virginia Center for Politics – one of many handicappers coming to the same conclusion.

The switch would mean the loss of a chairmanship for Nelson and an elevated role for Rubio.

Only one full committee is chaired by a Florida senator – the Senate Special Committee on Aging, run by Orlando Democrat Nelson – and so the most immediate impact would be to that committee.

The panel is important to Florida’s elderly population, and it regularly tackles key issues such as health care, consumer affairs and Social Security. Even so, the aging panel is not a legislative committee; it can shine the spotlight on issues but does not have the authority to move legislation to address them.

The Republican in line to take over the committee is Susan Collins of Maine. She is widely considered among the most moderate Republicans in the Senate. She also has worked well with Nelson, according to David Certner, a government affairs expert with AARP.

“I think they have a good working relationship,” he said. The committee, he added, is less partisan than most, a likely result of the topics it covers and the personalities of those in charge. And while it lacks a high profile, Certner said it “historically has been very important in highlighting issues of importance to seniors that might not get attention from other committees.”

Whatever happens in the midterm elections, Nelson might have stepped away from the leadership of the aging committee anyway, given expected post-election shuffling.

Nelson is expected to become the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation – also a pivotal perch given the panel’s role in the space program and the hot-button issue of climate change. The current Democrat in charge, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, did not seek re-election. Senators generally lead only one committee.

Asked about the potential switch, Nelson, through a spokesman, said: “It’s premature to talk about leadership and direction on the Commerce Committee, especially before Election Day. But certainly I’d be honored to serve as chairman should the circumstances permit.”

Florida’s junior senator, Rubio – a Republican from Miami – is also a potential 2016 presidential candidate and has a high-profile platform from his positions on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Foreign Relations, Intelligence and Commerce committees.

He’s not now in a likely position to assume the chairmanship of any of those committees.

However, Rubio does hold the spot as top Republican on two subcommittees: Foreign Relations’ panel on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Commerce’s panel on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard. That subcommittee oversees matters impacting oceans, coasts and climates – all of vital importance to Florida.

Besides, Rubio’s position on the high-profile Foreign Relations Committee is likely to play a big role on any presidential ambitions.

“He’s a very articulate speaker and a rising star, and whether that turns into a platform for 2016, I would assume he’ll take a more prominent role in Senate leadership,” said Richard S. Conley, an associate political science professor at the University of Florida. “Rubio can speak about the whole immigration issue with clarity. But his challenge – whether on the border, or immigration, or ISIS or Benghazi – is whether he can exercise leadership to bring Republicans to some consensus.”

On the conflict with the Islamic State, which also is known as ISIS or ISIL, Conley said, “My sense is we’re kind of adrift – nobody has a good solution for it. . . . I think Florida is probably typical of many other places in the country where people are very conflicted.”

The main issue for someone such as Rubio would be whether he can live up to the expectations people will have if his party is in command of both houses of Congress.

“It’s awesome being in the opposition because it’s power without responsibility,” said Danielle Pletka, a foreign policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “You spend a lot of time criticizing, and nobody expects you to deliver because the tools are not available to you.”

And chairmanship or not, Rubio will continue to have a big platform as he pursues a possible presidential bid.

“Being a chairman certainly can help,” Pletka said. “But if you have a will to express yourself and you have clear views and they are well expressed – and you have ideas – then there’s always an audience for you in Washington.”