Congress, it’s been said, is like high school for old people.
Both have their parties (political and otherwise), their cliques (or caucuses), and their teachers (leaders). The “rich” kids chair powerful committees and possess fancy leadership titles, while the “poor” members toil in obscurity.
And for some reason, they all seem to wait until the very last minute to finish their work, pulling all-nighters before their big tests (or votes).
Just as in high school, some lawmakers are popular — and some are not. It’s not necessarily the highest achievers (or top vote getters) who make the grade.
Of course, just as in high school, popularity doesn’t guarantee success. A few years ago, a new senator developed a reputation for being cold and aloof. His name? Barack Obama.
We surveyed a wide spectrum of congressional staffers, lobbyists, and even former members of Congress in order to come up with our list of who, among those immersed in the daily grind of the legislative process, is the most loved and who is the most hated.
Here they are, with one caveat: Being hated doesn’t mean you’re ineffective.
Sen. Lamar Alexander
He burst onto the national stage in 1996 as a plaid-clad presidential candidate known just as “Lamar!” Although he didn’t win that race, Lamar! came to the Senate six years later and quickly made friends on both sides of the aisle as an unassuming country boy. Once called a “Southern Ward Cleaver,” he frequently urges bipartisan compromise.
Sen. Sherrod Brown
Brown’s 88-year-old mother died in February, just a few days before the Senate voted on Obama’s economic stimulus bill. Although Democrats had been pushing to pass the bill as quickly as possible, they delayed the vote so Brown could attend his mother’s funeral; the White House provided Brown, 56, with transportation back to tiny Mansfield, Ohio.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito
Confident, friendly, and universally liked, Capito, 56, has drawn special preference from GOP leaders after managing to hold onto a Democratic-leaning district; she’s the only West Virginia Republican who has done so in decades. Another plus is her lineage of a procession of prominent West Virginia pols: Her father was Arch Moore, who served long stints in Congress and the governor’s office.
Sen. Tom Coburn
Although Coburn is one of the Senate’s most conservative members, the 61-year-old boasts proudly about the strong friendship he has built with, of all people, Barack Obama. That friendship could come back to haunt him in the Sooner State, which gave Obama the smallest percentage of votes in 2008. But Coburn insists that the two have clicked since their early days together in the Senate.
Sen. John Cornyn
Considered a thoughtful conservative from a rapidly changing state, Cornyn, 57, has won widespread plaudits for carefully navigating the tricky, and sometimes conflicting, politics of Texas and Capitol Hill. On the Iraq war and most economic issues, he stood squarely behind President Bush, who remained strong in Texas despite his unpopularity nationally. He also was the first Senate Republican to criticize Rush Limbaugh for calling Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a “racist” for her “wise Latina” comment.
Rep. John Dingell
Although Dingell, 83, is widely respected and admired as dean of the House, he has had his share of run-ins with members of his own party — most notably, the speaker. In 2002, he was forced into a Democratic primary with a liberal congresswoman, who drew backing from Nancy Pelosi. And just this year, Pelosi tacitly backed a successful challenge by liberal Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to Dingell’s leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Sen. Dick Durbin
One of the best things Obama had going for him when he arrived on Capitol Hill in 2005 was his home state’s senior senator, who took Obama under his wing and introduced him to the Hill’s power brokers. Despite a partisan streak, Durbin, 64, has built lasting friendships on both sides of the aisle during his nearly three decades in Congress.
Sen. Mike Enzi
It took Enzi, 65, more than a decade to raise his profile in Congress, where egos almost always trump mild manners. He did so by working quietly, behind the scenes, across the aisle. In 2002, for example, while he was still little known outside his small state, he sat down with Democrats to pass a landmark banking bill. The bill became known as Sarbanes-Oxley, after the two committee chairs who drafted it, and Enzi didn’t draw much praise for his work.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein
The Senate’s 76-year-old matriarch easily is the most popular politician in California, which instantly makes her someone to know. Still, her strongest friendships on Capitol Hill are with the Senate’s 16 female members, who consider her a feminist role model.
Sen. Chuck Grassley
It’s hard to dislike people from Iowa, and Grassley is no exception. During nearly 30 years in the Senate, he has managed to build one of the most loyal staffs and durable group of friends. The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, he has managed to maintain a close bond with the panel’s Democratic chairman, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana — even during the bitter debate over healthcare. Despite a recent exchange of barbs, Grassley also works well with Obama.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra
Hoekstra, 55, is a likable, nuts-and-bolts legislator who works well across the aisle. As the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, he’s built a strong working relationship with Democratic Rep. Jane Harman of California.
Sen. Daniel Inouye
Serving his eighth term in the Senate, Inouye, 85, is one of the few giants left. He is admired universally for a lifetime of public service — during World War II and on Capitol Hill. Perhaps most notably, Inouye had an unusually close friendship with former Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican who was one of the most cantankerous characters on the Hill. Inouye was a character witness in Stevens’ trial in 2008; the two men referred to each other as “brothers.”
Rep. Peter King
King, 65, speaks plainly — for proof, just watch the YouTube video in which he called Michael Jackson a “pervert” and a “pedophile” just one day after the King of Pop died. To be sure, the trait can get him into a fair amount of trouble. But in an institution known mostly for hot air, his colleagues find such candor refreshing. He’s a moderate from the New York suburbs who somehow has built strong ties with both conservatives and Democrats.
Rep. Mark Kirk
Kirk, 50, is one of the dwindling number of moderate Republicans from suburban districts left in a chamber that used to be full of them. And he won’t be around for long: He’s running for Barack Obama’s old Senate seat. He’ll be missed in the House for his mild-mannered ability to work with just about anyone. He also earned the respect of his colleagues this year when he completed a tour of duty in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It was the first time a congressman-reservist had deployed to a war zone since World War II.
Sen. Jon Kyl
Despite his ideological bent and Senate GOP leadership role, Kyl, 67, maintains a deep reservoir of goodwill among Democrats, most of whom agree he’s an honest broker who works across the aisle on many issues. He is considered one of the brightest minds in the 111th Congress, especially on judicial issues. For folks who have to do business with Arizona interests, Kyl is considered the approachable and even-tempered alternative to his irascible Senate colleague, John McCain.
Sen. Dick Lugar
If anyone is left in the Senate from the days when lawmakers worked amicably across the aisle, it’s Lugar, 77, who became the chamber’s senior Republican this year. The six-term Hoosier has decidedly Midwestern values: an Eagle Scout who was a straight-A student in college, he is widely considered to be a straight-shooter guided more by principles than politics.
Rep. Jerry Moran
In his Senate primary campaign against Rep. Todd Tiahrt, Moran, 55, has won a lopsided share of endorsements from their congressional colleagues. That’s largely because lawmakers consider Moran one of the most fair-minded and trustworthy lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “If I really wanted to be the perfect congressman, I would follow Jerry around for awhile to learn the ropes,” one Kansas Democrat says. “He’s got this place completely figured out.” To do that, they better fill up the gas tank; Moran logs more than 50,000 miles on his car each year visiting every county in his sprawling district.
Rep. Tom Price
Price, who was an orthopedic surgeon in his previous career, has gained popularity among conservatives this year as a vocal and credible critic of Democratic healthcare reform plans. Although he can be highly partisan and confrontational at times, even his opponents admire his blunt authenticity and folksy manner.
Sen. Pat Roberts
Capitol Hill aides dubbed Roberts, 73, the “funniest” senator several times in Washingtonian magazine’s annual poll. “The Kansan must need a sense of humor to chair the Intelligence Committee,” the magazine quipped in 2006. He once complained that he wasn’t satisfied with the distinction, according to the Almanac of American Politics. “I was lobbying for the â€˜hottie of the year,’” the bald senator mused.
Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers
In a job where it can be hard to share one’s personal side, McMorris-Rodgers, 40, has done so with gusto. In 2008, after her newborn son Cole was diagnosed with Down syndrome, she formed the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus to raise awareness about the disease. Her effort has helped establish bonds with her colleagues and made her one of the most approachable members. Elected for the first time in 2004, she’s also moving quickly up the GOP leadership ladder, winning election as conference vice chair this year.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
In 1989, Ros-Lehtinen, 57, became the first Cuban-American and the first Hispanic woman elected to the House. She is the most senior Republican woman in the chamber — and one of the most likable. With a sharp wit and a quick smile, she’s considered one of the most approachable representatives. “She doesn’t put up that fake intensity we see so much around here,” says one Congress watcher. “She’s just a very genuine person, and people respond well to that.”
Rep. Mike Ross
Ross might not be popular with his party’s leaders, against whom his Blue Dog Caucus has waged a number of battles over healthcare and budget issues. But his gumption has earned him the grudging respect of rank-and-file House colleagues on both sides of the aisle. His “aw-shucks,” country-boy demeanor doesn’t hurt, either.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen
Van Hollen, 50, is a young politician who has mastered old-school political skills. As one Congress watcher noted, “Chris makes a point of remembering everyone’s name, [and those of] their wives or husbands and children . . . where they’re from and what’s important to them.” The effort has paid off handsomely for one of the fastest-rising Democrats in Congress.
Sen. Mark Warner
Democrats consider Warner a folk hero of sorts, crediting him with reviving the party’s appeal to rural and Southern voters. He reinvented his state’s Democratic Party, paving the way for Obama to become the first Democrat to carry Virginia since 1964. Warner has taken his recipe for success to Capitol Hill, where he’s considered one of the few Democrats interested in working across the aisle.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz
Wasserman-Schultz’s reputation as a hard worker helped her rise quickly on Capitol Hill during her four years there. And the 43-year-old drew more admirers of her candor in March, when she announced she had breast cancer. Although the cancer was in its early stages, the mother of three had a double mastectomy as a precaution. Since then, she has become a strong advocate of cancer testing.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich
Although Kucinich, 63, has a hearty sense of humor, colleagues on both sides of the aisle say he is a prickly ideologue who often is more interested in scoring short-term political points than doing the hard work required to pass substantial pieces of legislation. During two campaigns for president, he has whipped up a national following among liberals and antiwar activists. But like many members of Congress who abandon their day jobs to run for the White House, those campaigns have left many of his colleagues rolling their eyes.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee
Jackson Lee, 59, has a history of eyebrow-raising behavior, most recently becoming YouTube fodder when she took a cell phone call at a town-hall meeting while a constituent was asking her a question about healthcare reform. Even more bizarre, Lee assigned her congressional staffers to cull local newspaper obituaries to find funerals at which she then requested to speak, the Houston Chronicle reported in September 2008. One staffer told of taking her to five funerals in one day, and of hating to have to ask the families whether they would allow her to address the mourners.
Rep. Jim Moran
If Wisconsin Democrat David Obey is the reigning champion of House floor tussles, Moran, 64, the son of a professional boxer who’s well known for his hot Irish temper, is a close runner-up. Most notably, during the 1995 debate over sending U.S. troops to Bosnia, Moran started a shoving match with then-Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., at the rear of the House chamber. The scuffle spilled into the hall, where Capitol Hill police officers were forced to break up what became known as the “brawl in the hall.” His GOP challengers frequently aim their attacks at his character.
Rep. Ron Paul
For years, Paul, 74, has been one of the least popular lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and that suits him just fine. In fact, Paul used his lack of friends in Congress as a rallying cry in 2008 for his insurgent presidential campaign, attracting voters disenchanted with both parties with a staunchly libertarian message. Although the campaign turned Paul into a mini-celebrity — most notably, among voters 50 years younger than he is — he remains isolated and largely ineffective in a legislative body where the “go-it-alone” strategy is rarely successful.
Sen. Arlen Specter
“Snarlin’ Arlen” is well known on Capitol Hill for temper tantrums aimed at both colleagues and aides. But solidifying his place on the “most disliked” list was his 2009 party switch that gave Democrats a filibuster-proof majority. Republicans had tolerated his arrogant manner when he voted with them — barely (conservatives made a strong bid to deny him the Judiciary Committee chairmanship in 2005). Now, they no longer trust him, and some openly loathe him. Meanwhile, his new Democratic allies aren’t sure how to handle him.
As originally published in Newsmax magazine.