What a Senate flip could mean for feds and IT

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With more than a half-dozen Republican-held Senate seats that could flip in either direction, control of the chamber is at stake on Nov. 8. Republicans currently control 54 seats, with 44 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats.

For government workforce and tech insiders, the most consequential Senate contest is the Wisconsin campaign between Republican Ron Johnson and Democrat Russ Feingold. Johnson chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over a wide range of federal management issues.

This is a rematch of their 2010 contest, in which first-time candidate Johnson decisively ousted three-term incumbent Feingold. Feingold has led the polls from the start of the campaign, though the margin has narrowed in recent weeks. He will benefit from Hillary Clinton's likely win over Donald Trump in Wisconsin; Democrats have not lost Wisconsin in a presidential contest since 1984. By contrast, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) has won two tight contests and a fierce recall campaign.

Johnson, a successful businessman whose company produced packaging for medical devices, has been a relatively low-profile but plain-spoken chairman since taking over the post in January 2015 -- especially compared to his fiery Republican counterparts at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

If Johnson loses, his likely successor in the committee's top GOP slot—either as chairman or ranking minority member—will be Rob Portman (R-Ohio). With an unexpectedly large lead in polls in his reelection campaign against former Gov. Ted Strickland, Portman is all but certain to return to the Senate. He is well known in government management circles, as the former U.S. Trade Representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget during the second term of President George W. Bush.

That background positions Portman to take a hands-on role at HSGAC. But he will likely have a new partner on the Democratic side. Tom Carper (D-Del.) is expected to give up his post as the panel's senior Democrat to take the top slot at the Environment and Public Works Committee. Next in line behind Carper at the Homeland Security Committee are Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.). Both are moderates who face difficult reelection in 2018, which could encourage bipartisanship at the panel.

And both have shown interest in weedy oversight issues. McCaskill has urged improvements of the clunky federal System of Award Management, while Tester has kept a weather eye on the details of changes to the way the federal government investigates candidates for security clearances.

At the Senate Appropriations Committee, which handles the purse strings for virtually every federal agency, the big change will be the retirement of Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who was chairman for two years and then ranking minority member starting in 2015. Mikulski, who has strong liberal views, has been a zealous advocate of federal agencies -- both current and prospective -- in her home state.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is Mikulski's likely successor at Appropriations, and possible chairman. Her home state has long been a beneficiary of federal funds, particularly for the aerospace industry, and both Microsoft and Amazon are headquartered there. Murray, who is Democratic Conference Secretary, also may move up in party ranks, with the retirement of Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is a virtual lock to succeed Reid, but the shuffle of other leadership slots is uncertain.

A likely Senate newcomer who will be worth watching is Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who has been the consistent favorite to defeat Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). Duckworth has been a member of the House Oversight Committee, and an activist on veterans' issues.

Duckworth, who lost both of her legs while copiloting a Black Hawk helicopter during the war in Iraq, served as director of the Illinois Veterans Affairs Department and was an assistant secretary at the federal VA Department before she was elected to the House in 2012.


About the Author

Richard E. Cohen, an FCW contributing writer, has covered Capitol Hill for more than three decades and is the author of several books on Congress.


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