Posted: Sept. 25, 2009
KAUFMAN CLIMBS THE HILL
By Celia Cohen
Ted Kaufman's new job came with a great title, a nice office and a dedicated staff but also the caboose-like status of bringing up the rear.
Seniority has its privileges in the United States Senate, and Kaufman had the least of it.
When he took his oath on Jan. 16, as an understudy getting a two-year run until the next senator from Delaware is elected to Joe Biden's old seat, the newest Democrat in the chamber was ranked 99th out of 100 members.
Kaufman could not be the 100th senator. For the moment, no one could. Minnesota was still having a very nasty recount over its 2008 Senate race. Minnesota Nice only goes so far in a state with a healthy share of hockey moms.
Some eight months later, Kaufman is bottom-feeding no longer. The Senate has had the kind of turnover usually associated with Henry the Eighth's wives.
Kaufman is 95th.
In a place so glacial that the daily agenda is called a "calendar," it has been a rapid climb up the depth charts of Capitol Hill.
"I'm in nosebleed country," Kaufman quipped. "I woke up one morning, and I was 95. Most people have to wait a term or two."
Seniority is so crucial that Tom Carper, the senior Democratic senator from Delaware, jokes about it. Anyone familiar with Carper knows if he is joking about something, it is no joking matter.
At a dinner in January in Dover, weeks before Biden was sworn in as vice president, Carper teased Biden as "the next former senior senator of the state of Delaware" and needled him for deciding to take the oath for a seventh Senate term before resigning, thereby leaving Carper as the junior senator -- for another "13 days, 23 hours and 17 minutes."
Seniority brings institutional influence. As the senior senator, Carper is the one who gets to recommend candidates for federal judgeships in Delaware. As the 54th senator in seniority, Carper finally accumulated enough tenure to go on the Finance Committee. It took him eight years.
People here can appreciate what seniority means. There is a reason Delaware has been riding its reputation as the "First State" for almost 222 years now.
Kaufman's advancement came from a variety of circumstances -- Cabinet appointments, the long count in Minnesota, a resignation and a death.
A Colorado seat opened when Ken Salazar became Interior secretary. Ditto for one in New York with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Minnesota took until the summer but finally certified Al Franken's election. Mel Martinez of Florida left to lobby. Massachusetts had a vacancy when Ted Kennedy died.
Kaufman arrived a day after Roland Burris, the Illinois Democrat occupying what was President Barack Obama's seat. People noticed. Kaufman was living proof that not every Senate appointment had to come with a gubernatorial impeachment attached.
As a matter of fact, Kaufman turned out to be something of a model. Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post called it the Kaufman "blueprint" -- the selection of a trusted ex-aide and confidant, as Kaufman is to Biden, to hold a seat.
It just happened again with Paul Kirk's appointment, representing Massachusetts until the voters there choose a new senator in January in a special election.
Kaufman's climb may not be over. He could be knocking on the door of 94 because Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican running for governor, has sent mixed signals about whether she will leave the Senate to campaign full time.
Moving up also means settling in. Kaufman has made himself at home on the Foreign Relations Committee and the Judiciary Committee, both of which Biden chaired, but he also has landed some recognition of his own -- as the only senator with an engineering background and the only Democrat with a Wharton MBA.
Kaufman may never be known as a lion of the Senate, but it is probably safe to say he has passed the danger mark of going down in history as the "Hamster of the Senate."
Besides, no other senator can count on getting hold of the vice president more than Kaufman. When in doubt of climbing in rank, pull it.