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Shaheen Finds Her Groove in Successful DHS Funding Fight

Shaheen's indefatigable efforts on behalf of the Homeland Security appropriations bill earned kudos from fellow Democrats. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Jeanne Shaheen didn't have months to prepare for becoming the leading Democrat on Homeland Security spending. She didn't get the chance to start the process at the beginning, with the president's budget request and weeks of hearings.  

The New Hampshire Democrat had no such opportunity because from the moment she became the ranking member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, she was operating in budget crisis mode, thanks to last December's "cromnibus" deal, with the DHS relying on stopgap spending until Wednesday's signing of a full-year funding measure. But even new to the role, Shaheen was everywhere. Fresh off a bruising re-election campaign in a cycle that saw many of her colleagues swept from office, she was back on the trail, whether holding a conference call or visiting a firehouse or Coast Guard station.  

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the Delaware Democrat who serves as ranking member of the authorizing committee, said Shaheen was proving to be an able successor at the spending subcommittee.  

"The person she follows is Mary [L.] Landrieu, and Mary Landrieu is a tigress. [She] was tenacious on all kinds of issues including Homeland Security issues, and Jeanne, with whom I served as governor for a number of years, ... stepped up and showed great passion, tenacity and leadership skills that would've made Mary proud," Carper said. "Certainly made me proud of her."  

"Senator Shaheen showed again why the caucus trusts and respects her leadership by refusing to let anyone play politics with Homeland Security," Minority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. "She stood strong for the people of New Hampshire and helped lead the fight to ensure that the men and women who protect our homeland would not be used as pawns in a political game. Her hard work and leadership on this issue have been invaluable."  

Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat who lost re-election in 2014 to Republican Bill Cassidy, was known for a particular level of tenacity in and around the Senate chamber.  

Carper said Shaheen played a key role in holding the Democratic caucus together, along with Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York and the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland. Carper also highlighted the roles played by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Reid in bringing to an end the standoff over funding the DHS without blocking the president's executive actions on immigration.  

While Republican leaders such as McConnell and Speaker John A. Boehner took their lumps in the standoff, Democrats such as Shaheen emerged with new political credentials.  

"She played a critical role here because of her understanding of the budget and her leadership on the floor," said Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. "Jeanne really came into her own."  

Durbin praised Shaheen particularly for her efforts in localizing the DHS funding issue.  

"Jeanne Shaheen translated this very difficult debate in Washington into simple, human, local terms. Tip O'Neill was right. 'All politics are local,' and she made it an issue over the local fire department, the police department, keeping your home and your neighborhood safe," Durbin said.  

Shaheen held a conference call in early February with the president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire and the chief of the fire department in Laconia, a community in the Lakes Region. Such events had the added advantage of getting media attention on the DHS-funding issue in the Granite State, where her fellow senator, Republican Kelly Ayotte, faces one of the toughest re-election tests of the 2016 cycle.  

Ayotte was among the Republicans who supported moving forward with the clean, full-year funding bill once a federal judge in Texas ruled against Obama's immigration actions. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the New Hampshire Democratic Party had targeted Ayotte over her previous position.  

Shaheen was in no mood Wednesday to talk politics or to tout her role in a DHS fight most observers chalked up as a huge win for Democrats.  

"I'm pleased that it finally got done, and I think Congress did what the American people expect. We acted in a bipartisan way to get a fundamental piece of legislation done that provides resources to protect this country," she said.  

Shaheen was in regular contact with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and other departmental leadership as the debate developed, starting as soon as she became the top Democrat on the subcommittee. Johnson was a fixture on Capitol Hill and before the TV cameras, advocating for his department's budget.  

"I am optimistic because I have to be, on behalf of the men and women of my department," Johnson told reporters outside the Old Senate Chamber one day at the end of February. "I remain optimistic because I have to be, but that's not without a fight. So, I'm up here every day talking to members of Congress."  

Shaheen was the lead author of a Jan. 27 letter, along with Mikulski, that all Senate Democrats except for Reid signed, rejecting the House-passed bill with the immigration policy riders that Democrats viewed as toxic. Reid, of course, concurred with the position taken by his caucus.  

She also worked to persuade most everyone in the caucus to take to the floor in support of the clean Homeland Security funding bill and was providing regular updates in closed-door meetings during January and February before the eventual resolution.  

The chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said though the two disagreed on the tactics for funding the department, they would continue to work together.  

"She and I work well together. So, I've worked with her on other things in the past — energy ... leg branch, now DHS. We get along well personally. We work together well. We both were governors," Hoeven said. "We were actually governors together. When she was governor of New Hampshire, I was governor of North Dakota, so part of our time crossed over as governors."  

Hannah Hess contributed to this report. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.