WASHINGTON The Senate Banking Committee just kicked off its congressional term last week, but it's clear whatever honeymoon might have existed between the two new leaders of the panel is already over.
During a hearing on Iranian sanctions, Sen. Sherrod Brown, the new top Democrat on the banking panel, openly complained about the proceedings and the ability of his party to bring witnesses, to the ire of some Republicans. Brown later argued the panel was busy trying to pass a bill even while it sought more information on the subject of the legislation.
The scuffle raises early questions about how the Ohio Democrat will work with Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who has resumed the gavel now that the GOP controls the Senate.
"I'm going to have a cautious eye on the process going forward, and if it doesn't improve that won't bode well for working together," said one financial services lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Several observers said they saw the move as a way for Brown to assert himself publicly in the new position of leadership.
"Brown's statement was pretty strong, but it also felt like it was a line in the sand than a particular issue-focused statement," said Isaac Boltansky, a policy analyst at Compass Point Research & Trading. "He wanted to make a strong stance out of the gate when he thinks about how minority is treated."
Still, some critics viewed Brown's concerns as best left discussed behind closed doors, while others downplayed some of the jostling as part of being in the minority after eight years of Democratic rule in the Senate. Spokeswomen for both lawmakers declined to comment for this story.
"When you're in the minority, it kind of sucks you don't set the agenda," said Mark Calabria, director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute.
He added that it's often difficult to separate procedural concerns from substantive ones in controversial debates like this.
"To me, there are some substance issues that are going under the cover of process," Calabria said. "You rarely hear about people complaining about the process when they're happy with the result."
To be sure, observers also pointed out that the committee is very early into the term, and that these kinds of disagreements are relatively common and have cut both ways across party lines in the past.
"As a matter of course, this is more normal than not. Anytime you have a change, both sides stake out positions when you're forming," said Edward Mills, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets. "There's always some behind-the-scenes drama and a lot of negotiations between staff and members."
It's also worth noting that the sanctions issue is outside of the Banking Committee's typical jurisdiction and is a highly politicized issue right now, albeit one that doesn't cut down traditional party lines.
"Because it's not in the traditional finance or housing space, it really isn't a fair and accurate reflection of how committee leadership will interact," said the lobbyist. "If the first couple of hearings on other topics" raise similar concerns "obviously that would be a pattern and an indication of how things are going to be a sign of a choppy, rough time ahead."
Republicans and some congressional Democrats have been pushing for more sanctions action against Iran, but President Obama said in his State of the Union address that he would veto any legislation adding more sanctions while diplomatic talks with Iran are ongoing.
The veto threat moved the issue "up the Republican to-do list," Boltansky said. "There would have been the same outcome, but I don't know that it would have happened so fast."
Brown repeatedly defended the White House position during the proceedings last week, and was one of just four Democrats to vote against the legislation on Thursday.
"It looks like this sanctions bill will be hustled through our committee with no actual legislative hearings, even though members likely have questions about its provisions, and uncertainty about what Congressional action might mean for the negotiations," he said on Tuesday.
The bill by Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., would ramp up sanctions if an arms agreement is not reached by June 30. That said, a group of key Democrats, including Menendez, agreed in a letter to Obama last week that they would hold off on a floor vote for the bill until March 24, to see if negotiators get can get a framework in place.
Those watching the committee said even prior to the recent dustup that these early meetings by the panel are key, because they could help set the tone for members' ability to work on other divisive issues, like changes to the Dodd-Frank Act.
Staff relationships "certainly make a big difference. It's much easier for people to work together if there's a level of trust," said Calabria. "On the other hand, staff relationships were not all that favorable under Dodd-Frank, but it still got passed. But it passed by 60, not 80, and some of that was staff interactions."
Relations between former Sen. Tim Johnson, D-.S.D., the chairman of the committee last Congress, and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, the lead GOP lawmakers, were reportedly positive. The two worked early in the term on reforms to the Federal Housing Administration a politically low-stakes set of issues giving staff time to form relationships and build trust.
They worked together very closely on legislation to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. While the bill didn't advance to the Senate floor, it appeared to be marked by good working relations between the two offices.
Whether Shelby and Brown can forge a similar connection remains to be seen.
"No one was expecting a kumbaya Congress," said Mills. "But we have two very serious and thoughtful members leading this committee, and they both know they need each other to get anything accomplished."
Brown first aired frustrations in his opening statement on Tuesday at the hearing.
"We have proceeded with regular order, carefully assessed policy options, and usually taken months to craft tough, targeted sanctions focusing their effect on Iran's leaders while minimizing harm and unintended consequences for the US and our allies," the ranking member said. "But in a departure from past practice, this hearing originally was not noticed in a timely way under the rules of the Senate."
The Jan. 20 hearing was originally noticed early on the morning of Jan. 14 a day shorter than the standard week given for most hearings and included a federal holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But the hearing and markup were subsequently pushed back to the following week.
Brown also argued that Shelby's team was not planning to call Obama administration officials as witnesses until Democrats pressed the issue, and that they weren't given enough notice about the hearing, either.
"Notwithstanding the Senate rule that guarantees witnesses chosen by the minority as a matter of right, our initial request to seat administration witnesses was refused," the ranking member added. "In fact, the administration is generally not considered to be a minority witness, and should not be. All of us should want to hear from those who are at the center of these negotiations, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office."
Republicans, meanwhile, have noted that the White House has already been very clear in making its argument against sanctions in public statements recently, including in the State of the Union address.
At Thursday's vote, Brown reiterated his concerns that the process was moving too quickly for careful consideration, adding that the vote came before panel members had a chance to submit additional questions to Tuesday's witnesses.
"The additional questions for the witnesses from Tuesday's hearing are not due until next week. The answers will be received some time later," said Brown. "These answers should be used to inform our work, yet we are marking up this bill before we have even decided what questions to ask."
Lawmakers have until Tuesday to submit questions for the record.