Congress’ Top Partisan Fighters
Asking Washington political insiders to list the most aggressive partisan street fighters in Congress over the past 50 years is like asking baseball fanatics to agree on an all-time all-star team. Democrats have their favorites and Republicans have theirs, and depending on whether you’re a lobbyist, a pundit, a scholar or a Hill staffer, you’re likely to have a different take on the question.
Still, with the help of dozens of political observers, Roll Call has assembled a list of the top 10 most partisan Congressional “street fighters” from the past 50 years.
The criteria, while somewhat subjective, are those Members who are viewed as the most combative, most effective at using partisanship for political gain and most likely to show a virtual disregard for the other side of the aisle.
Our panel of experts agreed that the two chambers generate two entirely different types of partisan Members. House Members more freely take off the gloves and engage in hand-to-hand combat with their colleagues. They have been known to manipulate the rules to their advantage.
The Senate, on the other hand, breeds more civility because the institution’s size and its rules require both parties to work together more often.
In the Senate, “you have 100 people who see each other and get to know each other,” said Norman Ornstein, a Congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a Roll Call contributing writer. “In the House, you can go through years without meeting your colleagues on the other side. You don’t think of them as human beings.”
Something else most of our observers agreed on is that the institution has become more partisan in recent years — a reality that has helped skew our list toward the recent end of the 50-year spectrum.
Political handicapper Charlie Cook pointed to a decrease in bipartisan trips and shorter work weeks as factors that tend to drive Members of different parties apart. Congress, he said, has become “pretty close to a dysfunctional institution.”
Still, despite the growing partisan bitterness, there is wide agreement that no Member is entirely partisan all the time. Students of Congress also note that not all partisans are identical. Some are stylistically moderate but ideologically partisan, while others are partisan through and through, both in their approach and their convictions.
With those caveats in mind, here are Roll Call’s picks for top partisan street-fighters. They are listed chronologically by year of election to Congress — five Republicans and five Democrats, and five Senators and five House Members.
Rep. Jim Wright (D-Texas),
Speaker, 1987 -1989
Wright succeeded Rep. Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) as Speaker in 1986, beating out then Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.) and current Rep. John Dingell (Mich.) — two strong-willed personalities in their own right. Wright was known as a deal cutter and a shrewd legislator, someone who carried unyielding principles and serious ambitions.
Wright frequently faced the ire of Republicans, who had by then been in the Congressional minority for several decades. Many GOP Members felt he ran over them and paid little attention to their views or ideas. Wright felt he didn’t need to consider the minority, which is not surprising, given that the Democrats in the 1980s held the chamber by a sizeable majority.
Republicans viewed Wright like Democrats viewed Gingrich, observers say: He set an agenda, pushed it through and had little tolerance for Members who tried to stand in his way. In a December 1988 Washington Post article, then-Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), the new House Minority Whip, said of the Republican frustrations: “Jim Wright has made our minority status more painful; he has reminded us why we should be dissatisfied.”
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.),
The always-ambitious Kennedy has carved out a role as one of the most liberal Members of the Senate, and in doing so, has become the Senator that Republicans love to attack. His name is regularly wielded by pundits and 30-second issue ads whenever conservatives want to scare voters about the Democratic Party. But Kennedy is no slouch in defending and advancing his party’s interests.
While it’s true that Kennedy has often worked across the aisle when legislating — notably with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on pharmaceutical issues and with Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) in President Bush’s education bill, the No Child Left Behind Act — he has also been the Democrats top defender and chief attack dog for most of his 40-year tenure.
He led Senate Democratic efforts to block the judicial nominations of Robert Bork in 1987, and during the House impeachment debate, Kennedy was one of Clinton’s key supporters.
More recently, Kennedy took on the job of top surrogate for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, his fellow Massachusetts Senator. Kennedy tried to boost Kerry’s standing by taking on the Bush administration over charges of failed foreign policies and accusations that the White House had increased the risk of nuclear terrorism.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.),
Helms, arguably one of the most controversial Senators in history, was known as “Senator No.” He made his mark for pushing traditionally Republican red-meat reforms on abortion, AIDS funding and flag burning.
“No American politician is more controversial — beloved in some quarters and hated in some others, than Jesse Helms,” the 1992 Almanac says.
Helms became a GOP powerhouse on the Foreign Relations Committee and was one of the first Senators to use the confirmation process to block appointments, including the 1997 appointment by President Clinton of Gov. William Weld (R-Mass.) as ambassador to Mexico.
The North Carolina Senator is also credited with helping create the national perception that Republicans are strong on defense and Democrats are weak. Despite Democrats’ best efforts to reverse that perception, it has dogged the party to this day.
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio),
Served 1974 and 1976-1995
In the eyes of both Democrats and Republicans, Metzenbaum remains one of the “most effective liberals” in Congressional history.
The Ohio Democrat was known for his confrontational style, and was one of the original Senate obstructionists. He worked to publicly expose Members’ hidden provisions and tax breaks in legislation, and would often threaten to filibuster bills to try to kill them.
An anonymous source quoted in an article published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer just after Metzenbaum announced his retirement said: “Howard was the ultimate gadfly; his role won’t change. He is the liberal porcupine, just as Jesse Helms is the conservative porcupine. Neither one could get any legislation adopted in its original form, but they block appropriations, they can use the negative power of a single senator effectively.”
Metzenbaum served on the Judiciary Committee and was one of the Senate’s staunchest supporters of gun control, including becoming the chamber’s point man on the Brady bill. He also carved out a niche during the early 1990s as the Senate’s leading critic of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Rep. Bob Walker (R-Pa.),
Elected in 1977, Walker served some 20 years in the House. He never held a leadership position, having lost a bid for Majority Whip in 1994 to DeLay.
Walker is probably best known for his relationship with Gingrich, and like him, was credited with a big assist in the 1994 House takeover. Walker spearheaded Gingrich’s 1989 campaign for Majority Whip, a crucial launching pad for the Georgia Republican, and remained Gingrich’s top confidante and ally throughout his tenure in Congress.
Walker won kudos for his tact and strong knowledge of House rules and procedures. It was he, sources said, who, in the late 1980s spearheaded the GOP minority’s offensive against the Democrats. Using special orders and one-minute speeches, Walker led the daily efforts on the floor that attacked the Democrats for ethical misgivings and mishandlings of the House.
As one veteran Congressional aide said: “Walker was very shrewd. He was a very good inside player and a good political strategist.”
Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.),
Served 1979-1989, Majority Whip, 1987-1989
In eight years, Coelho climbed from freshman to Majority Whip, the Democrats’ third-ranking post at the time. Before becoming Whip, Coelho served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 1981-1986.
It was perhaps his work on the campaign committee that gained him his notoriety as one of Congress’ most partisan Members. Coelho was known for bullying lobbyists and political action committees into making donations, reminding them that he expected them to give to the then-majority Democrats as well as Republicans, even if the GOP was closer to their views ideologically.
The California Democrat, sources said, “muscled the business community” into giving to the party — and did it successfully. In 1982, the Democrats picked up 26 seats. Even though the party lost seats two years later, Coelho could have done much worse, considering President Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election victory that November.
Coelho was also considered one of the right- hand men to then-Speaker O’Neill. He was viewed as a leading party strategist and an aggressive advocate for O’Neill’s agenda. But his tenure came to an abrupt end in 1989, when he resigned amid questions over his ties to a junk-bond investment.
“Like Tip O’Neill and Jim Wright, he is little interested in bipartisan efforts on most issues,” the 1988 Almanac of American Politics concluded shortly after Coelho became Whip. “As whip he is likely to be aggressive and combative, determined to beat Republicans on big issues and small, in the long term and the short.”
Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.),
Gingrich was the brains behind the Republican “Contract with America” and was in large part responsible for the party’s stunning takeover of the House in 1994. The Georgia Republican rose to power in record speed — less than six years from rank-and-file Member to Speaker.
Both Republicans and Democrats agree that Gingrich helped redefine the GOP and launch it to its majority status today. While not everyone in the Republican Conference liked Gingrich, virtually all respected him. Democrats, by contrast, almost universally despised him.
Gingrich, arguably one of the savviest political minds in the history of Congress, ascended the leadership ladder by courting crucial support from moderates, even though he was a staunch conservative. He also had a knack for undermining majority Democrats. He almost singlehandedly took up the ethical fight against then-Speaker Wright, and later challenged President Bill Clinton on impeachment head-on.
Gingrich’s self-confidence led to one major political setback — his fight over the 1995 budget, which led to a government shutdown for which the GOP was blamed, eventually aiding Clinton in his re-election bid.
Gingrich opted to retire amid attacks from fellow Republicans over his failure to live up to predictions in the 1998 midterm elections. Gingrich was also dogged by charges of ethical allegations and faced mounting criticism from his colleagues over his brash leadership style.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.),
Served 1983-1993 (House),
Boxer, the only woman to make our top 10 list, has developed a reputation as one of the most liberal lawmakers and a vocal advocate for abortion rights, gun control and women’s issues.
Boxer, elected to the Senate in 1992, has made waves throughout her tenure, but most notably for her defense of then-President Bill Clinton and her march across the Capitol as a House Member to defend Anita Hill, who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
More recently, Boxer challenged the 2004 electoral college vote — an almost unprecedented act, and one that was sure to fail, but which was designed to call attention to Democratic allegations of election irregularities in Ohio. “She is perhaps the personification of the feminist left,” the Almanac once wrote.
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas),
House Majority Leader, 2003-present
DeLay is the Republican that Democrats love to hate. First elected to the House in 1984, DeLay rose quickly. In his second term, he won a seat on the coveted Appropriations Committee. In 1992, he won the post of Conference Secretary, and when the Republicans took over the House in 1994, DeLay outdid then-Rep. Walker — the best friend of Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) — to win the Majority Whip job. In January, 2003, DeLay became Majority Leader.
DeLay is viewed by friends and enemies alike as a master political strategist and one of most influential Members in House history. While the GOP’s margins in the House during the past few Congresses have been low by historical standards, DeLay, more than anyone else, has enforced firm party loyalty that has translated into an unparalleled ability to win on virtually every vote.
DeLay has also enforced fealty among lobbyists on K Street and masterminded the 2004 Texas re-redistricting effort that led to the ouster of four Democratic incumbents. His strong-arm tactics have embroiled in a series of recent ethical controversies, but he has so far avoided any serious punishment.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.),
Majority Whip, 2003-present
Arguably one of the Senate’s most conservative members, McConnell has carved out a niche as a Republican stalwart in both policy and politics. He is often assigned to be the GOP’s point man in leading the charge for his party and criticizing those on the other side of the aisle.
He even rushed to the defense of then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) after Lott began drawing fire for comments at Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party that were deemed racially insensitive. (McConnell later encouraged Lott to step aside as the political heat intensified.)
McConnell, however, is perhaps best known as the Senate’s top adversary to campaign finance regulation, often taking on his GOP colleague Rep. John McCain (Ariz.) in opposing reforms. In 1994, McConnell spent an entire night filibustering a campaign-finance bill.
The Kentucky Senator has been quoted as saying: “I’m proud of my enemies. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”