Cory Booker will fit into Washington just fine. But what about the Senate?

October 31, 2013
Vice President Joe Biden presided over the swearing in of former Newark Mayor Cory Booker on the Senate floor Thursday. (The Washington Post)

On Thursday, Cory Booker went from being No. 1 to No. 100.

Put another way, the New Jersey Democrat was sworn in as the newest member of the Senate, leaving behind his position as mayor of Newark to embark on a career in a chamber steeped in hierarchy as the new kid on the block with the least seniority. While there's little doubt Booker will fit neatly on the national stage, the question is whether his larger-than-life persona will mesh with his new job or not.

"The Senate can be a forgiving place, but again, it is bound by custom and traditions. To be most effective you have to go along to get along," said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Booker, 44, is one of the Democratic Party's rising stars. A prolific fundraiser, gifted orator and enthusiastic politicker, he led the race to fill late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg's seat from start to finish this year. He's a staple of the Sunday shows and national cable news circuit, an avid social media user fond of interacting with constituents, and an outspoken liberal advocate on high-profile issues like same-sex marriage. He also became his state's first African American representative in the U.S. Senate, and just the second black member of the upper chamber's current roster.

In short, as we've argued before, he is poised to become the Senate's highest-profile Democratic member.

But being high-profile doesn't necessarily translate to getting legislation passed in the Senate, where the debate can move like molasses, and partisan gridlock has slowed the pace to a crawl. That could frustrate Booker. We're talking about someone who likes to take things into his own hands, someone who has cultivated his reputation by doing things like running into a burning building to perform a rescue.

Take Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has by far been the most visible and vocal freshman in the chamber this year. Despite his highly publicized filibuster and the mark he left in the government shutdown showdown, he won no legislative victories.

Cruz is part of a trio of big-name Republican senators -- the other two are Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) -- who are still new to the Senate but have taken off nationally, due in no small part to their concerted efforts to introduce themselves to the country.

The Senate Democratic Caucus doesn't really have analogs to them. Sure, there is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a liberal rock star, or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Both are frequently mentioned as possible White House contenders if Hillary Clinton doesn't run. But neither one covets the spotlight like Cruz, Rubio, Paul or, you guessed it, Booker.

"I don't want to just go down there and become a part of the system. I want to change it and create change for real people," Booker told NBC News in August.

Of course, it's possible Booker will surprise Senate observers, keep his head down, and work on policies that are important to voters back home. After all, he faces reelection in 2014. And easing into things as opposed to making a splash off the bat in the Senate was an effective strategy for President Obama and another prominent Democrat.

"[Former secretary of state] Hillary Clinton wrote the playbook that Obama and others including Elizabeth Warren have been following," Manley said.

In the Senate, there are obstacles aplenty, the partisanship is often served cold, the going can be slow, and the power is concentrated in the hands of a select few leaders in both parties. Can Booker live with those realities?

Maybe. But it will be a real change of pace for him.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · October 31, 2013