"I don't want to go to Washington to be a cosponsor of some bland, little bill nobody cares about," Elizabeth Warren said in 2011. "I don't want to go to Washington to get my name on something that makes small change at the margin."
In the four years since the then-Senate candidate made those comments in the The New York Times Magazine, Warren has cosponsored more than four dozen simple resolutions establishing "National Rare Disease Day" and "honoring the entrepreneurial spirit of small business concerns in the United States."
During her tenure in office, she's managed to pass just one bill of any significance through the Senate—the Smart Savings Act, which altered retirement accounts for federal workers to give them more returns on their investments. A companion bill authored by Rep. Darrell Issa passed the House and became law. Her signature student loan legislation was blocked by Senate Republicans, even when her own party held the majority.
Warren's record is actually typical of her class. Most of the senators elected in 2012 alongside Warren, Republican and Democrat alike, haven't had a bill pass the Senate, much less make it to the president's desk. Just two classmates, Ted Cruz of Texas and Deb Fischer of Nebraska, have had greater legislative accomplishments. Each has passed two bills through the upper chamber, with one each earning President Obama's signature.
Unlike most members of her class, Warren is a staple on the campaign trail, a frequent feature of headlines and talk shows, and the recipient of an avid campaign to draft her into the presidential campaign—regardless of how many of her bills have become law.
And for Warren, that was never the point. She didn't run for office to sign onto a slew of legislation naming post offices and making insignificant changes to U.S. policy. Her goal wasn't exactly to pass dozens of big bills either; she's too much of a realist for that, allies say.
Warren's real power lies in her outsized influence, not just for a freshman senator, but for virtually any elected official in Washington. Her pen may not have touched many pieces of legislation that made their way to Obama's desk since her election in 2012, but her fingerprints are all over them.
Warren would be a strong spokeswoman for the party in Congress or outside of it; she spurred creation of a federal agency—the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau— without the title of "senator" in front of her name. But allies say Warren's best tool is her seat at the committee table in the Senate. Through hearings on the Senate Banking Committee in particular, Warren's questioning and persistence has lead to rules changes at various federal agencies without needing to get legislation through a Republican-controlled Congress. Most notably, Warren successfully pushed the SEC to require banks to admit wrongdoing in negotiating many settlements.
Even critics acknowledge that Warren's influence, particularly over federal agencies and her Democratic colleagues, goes beyond her fairly brief record of legislative accomplishment.
"She's both at the same time highly ineffective and influential—and I know that sounds inconsistent but it's not," one senior financial services executive, a Warren critic, said. "She has no legislative accomplishment other than to derail a few [nominees], which is easy to do. But to her credit, she is highly influential. Members of the House Democratic Caucus and Senate Democratic Caucus "¦ are really looking over their shoulders."
During the federal funding crisis at the end of last year, Warren organized a near-coup of left-leaning Democrats to kill the so-called "CRomnibus" over its proposed changes to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law that surprised even many rank-and-file Democratic members. The uprising ultimately failed, but the fight says a lot about Warren and how she sees herself within the Senate.
For one, Warren again showed members of her own party the scope of her influence and willingness to break with leadership on the issues that are most central to her worldview. The fact that Warren was joined by 20 Senate Democrats and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders in voting against a government funding bill crafted under her own party's majority was a warning sign to leaders of both parties against targeting Dodd-Frank again in the future.
But perhaps more significantly, Warren displayed a restraint that has kept her, largely, in the good graces of her colleagues. Unlike Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee, to whom she often is compared, Warren made her opinion known and then allowed her colleagues to vote as they saw fit. Cruz and Lee, meanwhile, threatened to tank the whole funding package and kept their colleagues in Washington for a few late-night and weekend sessions ahead of their holiday recess.
Warren's restraint may have lost her the battle, but has earned her a tremendous amount of respect from her colleagues. Warren allies say that, coupled with her fundraising for candidates across the Democratic party spectrum, is what has helped to keep her relevant within the conference—though thousands of avid supporters willing to put their votes and their dollars behind her ideology, and against those who oppose her, don't hurt either.
That's helped Warren to continue to hold outsized sway over the conversation among Democratic policymakers in Washington, particularly for a freshman. "Democrats in Congress were talking about cutting Social Security in 2012, and Warren got 42 of 44 Democrats to vote yes on expanding Social Security benefits instead," Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Campaign Change Committee said in a statement.
And while she's become a popular foil for Republicans in Congress and in races across the country, there's some early evidence that Warren's messaging is breaking through to voters on both sides. Warren allies point to a focus group conducted by pollster Peter Hart in Colorado this year (granted, among just 12 individuals), in which the Massachusetts Democrat received positive reviews from Democrats, Republicans, and independents.
But perhaps the best evidence is Warren's campaign warpath during the most recent election cycle. The liberal senator campaigned not just for left-leaning candidates, but also in red states for struggling moderate Democratic candidates Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Natalie Tennant in West Virginia. She's expected to be a force on the campaign trail in blue and red districts again this cycle.
"President Obama ran on many of the same themes as Warren in his reelection campaign, as did many of the Democratic senators who won close contests in 2014," said Gary Ritterstein, an adviser for Ready for Warren which continues to encourage the senator to enter the 2016 presidential race. "Some Republicans are now paying lip service to income inequality because they are worried that Warren is breaking through to voters in both parties. This is part of the reason Democratic leaders, including Secretary Clinton, have turned to Warren for advice."
Warren is constantly trying to hold her own party accountable, while avoiding crying wolf to the point that her own colleagues ignore her. And so far it seems to be working, colleagues say. After growing frustrated with Warren's limelight-seeking on trade in an interview with the The New York Times, Sen. Claire McCaskill apologized in a tweet, saying Warren deserves the attention she gets.
Warren appeared to come close to overplaying her hand this month, when working against the administration and several members of her own party on a trade deal that passed Congress last week. Warren's campaigning drew a rare, aggressive rebuke from Obama who called her "absolutely wrong" on the issue and dismissed her as "a politician like everybody else".
Sen. Tim Kaine, a moderate Democrat and close ally of the White House, called Obama's comments "unnecessary," but said not to take the standoff as a sign of any serious ramping of the long-simmering fight between the administration and Warren.
"I think it is personally disappointing to him when Democrats want to deny him things that other presidents have had. And especially when some of the arguments against this almost make it sound like he's acting in bad faith," Kaine said. "So I know he takes that personally, but Elizabeth Warren wasn't here giving TPA power to other presidents "¦ she wasn't part of the precedent."
Kaine praised Warren for raising "issue after issue that have to be raised," but said he's sympathetic to the president's frustration. "It's not the arrows in your chest that hurt, it's the arrows in your back," Kaine said. "He maybe let his emotions get the better of him, but he keeps his emotions in check [in general] better than just about anybody else."
Warren wasn't the only one calling out the administration on trade policy, but she was the only one that got a personal response from the president. For Warren, at the moment, that's exactly what she wants.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly reported the Smart Savings Act passed the Senate but failed in the House. A companion measure, authored by Rep. Darrell Issa, passed the House and was signed into law.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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