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Elizabeth Warren Leads Progressive Charge, but Has GOP Admirers Too

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

"What reaction do you usually expect from banks?" Sen. Elizabeth Warren asked a reporter last week.  

It was classic Warren. Appearing at a news conference with fellow Democrats and D.C.-area college students to roll out legislation she spearheaded that would let borrowers refinance student loans, the Massachusetts Democrat dismissed a question about financial institutions losing profits from older, high-interest loans.  

"There's a real question here. Does Congress work for the rich and the powerful, for those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers, or does Congress work for the rest of America?" Warren asked. "We believe the rest of America should get a fair shot at an affordable education." The Democratic senator is well known for her populist criticism of big banks, and the financial services sector more generally, as well as for being the driving force behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And she's raised her profile with a tour for her recently-released book "A Fighting Chance," during which she's been greeted by largely adoring audiences and no shortage of calls for her to seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2016.  

Her national profile makes her a natural to lead Democratic efforts to rally their progressive base — like with the student loan bill — but her status as a star on the left  doesn't seem to have hampered her ability to work with GOP senators under the Dome.  

Warren has worked with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on an effort to help keep veterans from falling victim to scam artists, and she's working with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., on the issue of transparency when the federal government's various enforcement agencies settle cases.  

Coburn working with a potential Democratic presidential candidate on transparency issues is, oddly enough, not new. A bill that Coburn introduced with then-Sen. Barack Obama related to transparency in federal funding decisions was signed into law by President George W. Bush back in 2006.  

Sen. Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, the ranking member on the Banking Committee, said he doesn't believe there would be any political repercussions for Republicans working with Warren.  

"I don’t think so. I know people are always speculating about that, but no I don't think so," Crapo said. He noted he had worked with Warren on legislation that would overhaul Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  

"We are always looking for opportunities to work with any of our colleagues. I don't think there is blow-back or anything when we work together from different perspectives," he said.  

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., co-sponsored a bill with Warren last July that would reinstate portions of the Glass-Steagall Act.  

"I think she's adjusted well to the Senate and she speaks very strongly and candidly as one might expect,” McCain said. "So I think she represents her point of view in a very articulate fashion."  

Of course, that does not mean Republicans often agree with Warren's point-of-view. Including, it seems, on the student loan measure that is going to be the next piece of the Senate Democrats' “fair shot” agenda. Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, a fellow Democratic freshman, said the issue of the cost of college was a natural for Warren to take the lead on.  

"Well I think she's a great colleague and a lot of fun. And I think this issue has given her advocacy for consumers over her career as a law professor and in particular a cognizance about bankruptcy laws and how families burdened with debt don't really have a fair shot at the American dream. She's been really great about not only speaking out on that but also offering constructive legislation like this bill," Baldwin said.  

Since the bill as currently drafted is paid for using the so-called Buffett rule millionaire minimum tax, it's almost certainly headed for a GOP filibuster when it comes up for a test vote next month, though Democrats say they are open to other offsets .  

Having Warren front and center, meanwhile, gives the issue some extra muscle with progressives beyond the Beltway.  

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, for instance, has touted a series of grass-roots events backing the student loan proposal.  

Although Warren's bill faces an uphill battle in the the divided Senate, her fellow Democrats see her as an effective member of their caucus. She joined Sen. Patty Murray of Washington on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon to outline the way priorities of Senate Democrats affect women. "This is a question I know Sen. Warren cares deeply about," said Murray. "She's brought an enormous amount of leadership and focus to this debate."  

"I support her policies because I think she's on the right track to help our students and I think she's pursuing the right strategy," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., dean of the Senate women, in a brief interview earlier in the week.  

Warren has not secured a signature legislative achievement since taking office, but that's no surprise in the current Senate atmosphere where legislative productivity has almost ground to a halt.  

But her profile could work to her favor in the Senate. "Her voice is respected," said fellow Massachusetts Democrat Edward J. Markey, who added that her “stature” helps focus attention on her signature issues.  

Mikulski also works with Warren on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  

"What I see is that she's really working hard on the agenda that she campaigned on and not worrying about her national profile, and because of it she has a very good one," she said.  

Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.