When President Obama touches down in LaCrosse, Wis., Thursday afternoon, he'll be landing in the district of the Democratic congressman who is doing a lot of heavy lifting for the president's trade agenda. But when it comes to his fourth-quarter legislative agenda, Rep. Ron Kind isn't the only Dairy State lawmaker that Obama must rely on to advance his priorities.
Whether it's trade or overhauling the criminal justice system or keeping the highway trust fund in the black, members of the Wisconsin delegation are key players.
"We're kind of right in the center of his legislative agenda," Kind said about Wisconsin's 10 members of Congress. "As a delegation, we're strategically placed. And we try to work together. We should be working more in that fashion in Congress — working together to try and get things done."
The confluence of Obama's priorities and the cheeseheads — a nickname many of Obama's fellow Illini have bestowed on their northern neighbors and that Wisconsinites have embraced — could be because "we in Wisconsin are interested in results and think outside of the box to try and get them," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the longtime Republican lawmaker who represents Milwaukee's western suburbs.
"There must be something in the milk around here," he joked.
Earlier this summer when Congress was split on extending some of the USA Patriot Act's most controversial provisions, the White House forcefully put its weight behind Sensenbrenner's USA Freedom Act. That bill ended bulk collection of Americans' phone records while still giving the intelligence community special authorities to thwart terrorist activities.
"The USA Freedom Act is a carefully crafted compromise that has the support of the president, the attorney general, the intelligence community, the technology industry and privacy groups, and most importantly, the American people," Sensenbrenner, who leads the House Judiciary Committee's Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations Subcommittee, stated after the Senate passed it on June 2.
During an appearance with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Tuesday, Obama listed his remaining legislative priorities and mentioned Sensenbrenner, though not by name.
"I am really interested in the possibilities — the prospect of bipartisan legislation around the criminal justice system," Obama stated. "And we've seen some really interesting leadership from some unlikely Republican legislators, very sincerely concerned about making progress there."
Sensenbrenner and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., introduced a criminal justice system reform package on June 26 called the Safe, Accountable Fair and Effective Justice, or SAFE Justice Act. It would overhaul the federal sentencing and corrections system to combat recidivism, maintain lengthy sentences only for violent and career criminals and seek alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders.
"I welcome the president's support," Sensenbrenner said, while making clear that the SAFE Justice Act is very much his and Scott's product. Although the duo kept the administration apprised of their activities, the White House has not been particularly engaged on the issue so far, Sensenbrenner said. "They must have liked the direction [Scott] and I were going in," he said in response to Obama's comment.
When it came to the reigning crown jewel of Obama's late-term agenda, winning the ability to bring trade deals to Congress for sign-off without chance for amendment, Obama had to rely heavily on House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan. The Janesville Republican wrote and pushed relentlessly for trade promotion authority.
"I'm glad the president is finally working more closely with the Wisconsin delegation," Ryan stated. "It goes to show just how much we can get done when we focus on finding common ground."
The White House hopes to again find common ground with the former GOP vice presidential candidate when it comes to preventing the highway trust fund from going bankrupt at month's end. And more importantly, the administration knows he is a key player in budget negotiations and averting another government shutdown.
"[W]e certainly don't believe that Congress should procrastinate any longer in confronting this budgetary responsibility that they have," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said June 25 when asked about the looming budget crisis. "What we have said is most likely to lead to success is for Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to follow the approach that was established by Senator Murray and Chairman Paul Ryan.
"Ultimately, two years ago, in the context of the last budget agreement, those two...sat down at the negotiating table and hammered out a budget agreement that didn't reflect anybody's idea of perfection," Earnest continued. "Nobody got everything that they wanted out of those talks. But what was generated, and what was produced by those conversations, was a genuinely bipartisan piece of legislation that reflected common ground between the two parties."
Sensenbrenner, Ryan and Kind all emphasize bipartisanship when discussing their legislative priorities and their leadership style is one of midwestern pragmatism.
"One thing that you need to get anything done in Washington is to make it bipartisan and bicameral," said Sensenbrenner, who is in his 19th term in the House.
"I think we just intuitively know that," Kind added. "I think that's why we want to be in office — to have a voice at the table and to be active and...to help shape and craft these" important policies.