WASHINGTON – Elizabeth Warren arrived at the US Capitol on Thursday morning carrying an L.L. Bean backpack in the manner of a student in one of her former classes at Harvard Law School. Inside was a treasured, tattered King James Bible that she had used since third grade and had chosen for her swearing-in as the US Senator from Massachusetts.
“I know people come with big fancy family Bibles,” Warren said in an interview shortly before her Noon induction into the Senate. “Mine’s a little more modest.”
As she sat in the Capitol, the first woman to be elected to the US Senate from Massachusetts mused about the history of the moment.
“This chair, this particular Senate seat, was held by John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, [Charles] Sumner—and of course Senator [Edward M.] Kennedy for half a century,” Warren said. “Men of principle, men who fought hard for the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and for this country.”
“I come into this…knowing I’m not those men,” she added. “But I’m going to work my heart out.”
As Warren and Representative Joseph Kennedy III on Thursday became the newest elected officials from Massachusetts to walk the marble Capitol hallways, they are ushering in a rapidly transforming Massachusetts delegation.
Two long-time stalwarts – John Olver and Barney Frank, 53 years in Washington between them – are retiring, and former Senator Scott Brown is back in Massachusetts after losing to Warren. Meanwhile, Senator John Kerry is preparing for confirmation hearings to become Secretary of State and Representative Edward J. Markey is planning to run for his seat (possibly against Brown).
“Massachusetts has long had some of the most powerful delegations year in and year out,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Senator Edward M. Kennedy. “I’m afraid that’s something that’s going to change.”
The Massachusetts delegation has been a striking scene of continuity. The last time Massachusetts lost two members of Congress at the same time was 1997 – when two Republicans, Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen, both lost reelection bids.
In addition, from 1962 to 2009, Massachusetts had five US senators. From 2009 to 2013, the state will have had the six (two of them interim).
With Kerry all but gone, Massachusetts would lose the eighth most senior member in the Senate. If Markey wins that seat, the state would lose the ninth most senior member in the House.
Seniority may seem like an honorary item – or, in Washington, something not to covet – but it has a big impact in the ability to navigate the musty ways of Congress.
In a building where seniority matters in setting an agenda and getting heard – and where experience in the musty ways of Congress is pivotal – the state could have relatively junior members steering the way.
Massachusetts has long had outsized political clout for its relatively small delegation, with major players on issues like health care, financial regulation, foreign affairs, and global warming. One reason was the legacy of the late House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, who made a point to position Massachusetts lawmakers on key committees in the House. Over time, those members rose to senior roles.
Kennedy, despite his famed name and gold-plated political stock, couldn’t get a slot on the House Education Committee.
“I’ve seen a lot of transition during my career on Capitol Hill—and there’s no question we’re going to feel the loss of Senator Kerry and of Barney and of John Olver,” said Representative James McGovern, a Democrat from Worcester who started as a congressional aide to Representative Joe Moakley.
“We’re like a family,” McGovern added. “You’re used to seeing these people every day and then all the sudden we won’t. On a personal level all of them are going to be missed. In terms of seniority and clout and brain power, that also is going to be missed.”
Warren still doesn’t have a house to live in (she’s going apartment-hunting on Friday). And she has been told she’ll be in a double-wide trailer until an office can be secured for her, sometime by April. The Senate only allocates funding for two staffers to senators-elect, so she’ll soon be beefing up a staff she’ll be heavily dependent upon.
Because she doesn’t have a proper office yet, she sat for an interview in a committee conference room in one of the furthest buildings away from the Senate floor.
Warren declined to say whether she would have voted for the fiscal cliff deal, but she was highly critical of the negotiation struck by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“I’m just now learning all the details of the deal,” she said. “Giveaways to big corporations at a time when we’re under enormous financial pressure? You know, this whole deal was supposed to be about bringing our house into financial order, not giving more away to some of the biggest corporations in this country.”
“We have a $16 trillion deficit. You need to be serious about dealing with it,” she added. “Giving away more money to big, profitable corporations and doing it with so little public debate doesn’t move us to stronger financial footing.”
Warren also declined to endorse Representative Edward J. Markey, who is planning to run for Kerry’s seat. Markey, a Malden Democrat, has been endorsed by Kerry, Vicki Kennedy, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“You know, Ed has been a terrific congressman, particularly strong on environmental issues. A real leader,” Warren said. “He’s the one in the race right now, I think he would make a great senator. but we should see what unfolds.”
Meanwhile, Warren is planning to return to figuring out how to navigate the halls of Congress. And she has newfound empathy for the first-year students she taught in law school.
“It is like the first day of school, over and over. It’s new beginnings,” she said. “I feel the weight of history. But also the urgency of the future.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.