Senate’s new budget boss is also a climate hawk
There’s a sharp-elbowed progressive atop the Senate Budget Committee, with big ideas about corporate greed, the environment and shaking up Washington. And it isn’t Bernie Sanders.
No, it’s Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Islander who’s notorious for skewering Republicans (while quietly working with them) and challenging Democratic leadership every two years to give up their gavels. Not to mention the hundreds of “Time to Wake Up” speeches he’s given on climate change. Don’t forget “The Scheme,” a book and oratory series linking dark money with the conservative Supreme Court.
Just don’t expect him to be putting a budget resolution up for a vote anytime soon. For the moment, the third-term Democrat instead plans to use his first-ever chairmanship to try and make a case for the little guy.
“I just have a very strong general sympathy for underdogs,” Whitehouse said during a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office, which features a collection of Yacht Club bottles (Rhode Island’s official state soda) and walls adorned with moody lighthouse photos.
The junior Ocean State senator is hardly an underdog himself. His father, Charles Sheldon Whitehouse, was an ambassador to Laos and Thailand. After attending an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, Whitehouse studied at Yale University and the University of Virginia law school.
His victory over a GOP incumbent in 2006 played a key role in turning New England its current shade of blue. But even though Whitehouse is a pugnacious partisan at times, he still maintains surprising GOP friendships.
He led a delegation to Munich with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) earlier this year. When his arch-rival in many environmental debates decided to retire last year, Whitehouse described former Sen. Jim Inhofe as “a key ally on my oceans and infrastructure measures.”
Meanwhile, Whitehouse has also made waves about inequity in a surprising place: within his own party’s caucus. He sparked an internal Democratic battle in 2020 by arguing that Sen Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) shouldn’t helm the Judiciary panel while also serving as the party’s whip. Two years later, he sought to downgrade the ability of the party’s top four leaders to chair prime committees.
Whitehouse lost both fights. If you ask him, though, they were worth waging: “The overall effort was successful in sharing authority more broadly and fairly around the caucus.”
It doesn’t appear that his propensity to pick those internal battles rattled his leader’s confidence in his ability to wield the Budget gavel. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer described Whitehouse as “smart, persistent, passionate, and articulate.”
“He’s got a unique way of taking the complex federal budget and breaking it down to show it impacts the lives of everyday Americans,” Schumer added in a statement.
Whitehouse, a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general, was one of Schumer’s star recruits as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chair. The Rhode Island Democrat has yet to announce or rule out a fourth term in 2024.
A reelection bid could shine a brighter light on his work at the Budget panel — particularly the still-pending decision on whether Senate Democrats will write their own fiscal proposal or work from President Joe Biden’s blueprint. Asked earlier this month about the looming decision, all Whitehouse would say is “TBD.”
So for the moment, after giving nearly 300 “Time to Wake Up” speeches on the floor, Whitehouse is planning to devote still more attention to climate change on the committee. He also intends to use the gavel to home in on health care spending and better health outcomes for Americans, in addition to correcting a “corrupted tax code.”
Of course, the power of the Budget chair to effect any concrete policy changes is limited: Sanders tried to get a $6 trillion party-line policy bill done last Congress and eventually settled for something a fraction of the size.
And so far, Whitehouse isn’t getting bipartisan rave reviews.
“I call the committee kind of a useless appendage,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), arguing that the new chair’s professed interest in budget reform still plays “second fiddle” to Whitehouse’s “main concern, which is climate.”
“I always believe that you should be doing what’s central to the committee itself,” Braun added.
Whitehouse says he’s serious about his budget reform goals — which Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also praised — and signaled he’d like to revive a push to set overall budget goals for Congress, such as limiting the country’s level of public debt compared to its GDP.
But he also counters skeptics by saying that his unorthodox focuses as chair speaks to a “throughline” of his career: “a very strong belief in government integrity.” The Rhode Island Democrat rails on what he calls a “concerted effort to pack the Supreme Court,” the subject of the book he published last year.
The failure of Congress to adequately respond to climate change, he maintains, has demonstrated “a dramatic lack of integrity, almost entirely due to the malign political influence of the fossil fuel industry operating semi-covertly through dark money channels and front groups.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Whitehouse is relishing the ability to use a chair’s microphone to spread his often-mellifluous message. The senator has a way with words when it comes to battling with Republicans.
“They’re relying on a new magic budget word. That word is ‘woke,’” Whitehouse said at a press conference earlier this month. “Call everything ‘woke’ and then try to cut its funding seems to be the strategy … The woke screen is a smoke screen.”
It was a cutting enough remark to earn an “oooh” of approval from Schumer.
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