WASHINGTON — Senator John F. Kerry used his experience and relationships in the Senate to help secure more Navy ships for coastal combat, boosting Massachusetts technology jobs. Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent, fought hard to protect Connecticut’s submarine-building franchise. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine’s moderate Republican, built a reputation ensuring Bath Iron Works continued hammering out destroyers.
But now this powerful trio of veteran New England senators is gone, sapping the region’s political clout. Snowe and Lieberman retired and, on Tuesday, Kerry won confirmation as secretary of state.
Gone is their combined 70 years of experience in the Senate, creating a challenge for the less-experienced New England senators and newcomers who must assume leadership roles in a clubby chamber where the key political currencies are seniority and personal relationships.
“This is the first time in a while the state of Massachusetts finds itself in this position [without senior senators],” said Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University. “We just don’t know how good the new Senate class is going to be at these negotiations.”
In the Capitol, experience not only catapults senators atop committee leadership, but it proves key when the Senate writes bills that decide winners and losers in economic matters, from research grants to military weapons procurement. Where Kerry, Snowe, and Lieberman could win favors in legislation with a phone call or a private huddle on the Senate floor, the region’s less-experienced senators will have to wear out a lot more shoe leather.
“Certainly to lose those years of service here, the expertise, and the understanding of the issues, is hard,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to make that up.”
The stakes are especially high as the Senate convenes because of $500 billion in across-the-board defense spending reductions, known as “sequestration” cuts, that are scheduled to take effect March 1. On the border of Maine and New Hampshire, for example, defense contracts at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, a vital economic engine, are in jeopardy.
Snowe and Lieberman ‘were often critical swing votes, so that gave them unusual power to negotiate.’
“Particularly as we’re looking at the threat of the automatic cuts that are coming into effect,’’ Shaheen said, “anything that is related to the defense industry is going to be affected by those funding cuts.”
Although New England lawmakers still hold five of the 26 spots on the Senate Armed Services Committee, they do not yet have the same level of seniority on committees and personal connections that would make it easier to make sure regional defense contractors are protected, said Darrell West, director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.
“It’s a risky time for New England,” he said. “One of the ways the region attracts federal money is having a federal delegation who can speak forcefully on its behalf.”
Massachusetts contracts garnered nearly $14 billion in federal defense and homeland security projects last year, according to the Defense Technology Initiative, a regional trade group. Connecticut firms nearly mirrored the total, bringing in $12.7 billion. Bath Iron Works in Maine, meanwhile, builds Navy destroyers and is among the state’s largest employers.
Lieberman and Snowe used their moderate profiles and swing votes to leverage contracts for the region, West added. Lieberman emerged in the early 1990s as a champion of local military dollars by opposing Pentagon reductions in fast-attack submarines, made in Connecticut. Snowe, meanwhile, prevailed against a 2004 Navy proposal to shift destroyer production from Maine to Mississippi.
“They were often critical swing votes, so that gave them unusual power to negotiate on behalf of their region,” West said. “People took them seriously and knew that their vote sometimes made the difference between something getting passed.”
Maine will be aided by Senator Susan M. Collins , a Republican who worked with Snowe to protect the state’s shipyards.
Senator Richard Blumenthal — now Connecticut’s senior senator — said he is eagerly taking up the fight for the state’s air and sea contractors. And Jack Reed of neighboring Rhode Island is a veteran senator who consistently looks out for submarine building in the region.
Chris Murphy, Connecticut’s freshman senator, said Lieberman’s defense savvy cannot be replaced overnight. But he added that he had already fought for in-state contractors during a six-year-stint in the House. Given recent turnover in the Senate, he said, that “makes me pretty senior these days,” he said.
“I won’t claim that experience doesn’t matter,” the 39-year-old Democrat said. “I’ve always been the newest guy . . . over the last 15 years. I’ve learned to make up for a lack of experience with grit and determination.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts faces a different — and perhaps tougher — opening act, as she will temporarily work with a senator appointed by Governor Deval Patrick before the June 25 special election for Kerry’s seat. Warren did not respond to requests for comment and declined to discuss the issue when approached outside the Senate chamber.
Given her history as a consumer advocate and recent appointment to the Senate Banking Committee, Warren may focus more on financial regulation than military contracts, Ansolabehere said.
With his 47 years of Senate experience, the late Edward M. Kennedy possessed an in-depth understanding of the industry’s importance to the Bay State economy, said Chris Anderson, president of the Defense Technology Initiative, a Massachusetts nonprofit that seeks to grow the region’s defense industry. Warren’s predecessor, Scott Brown, is a National Guard colonel who sat on the Armed Services Committee and advocated for Bay State firms.
Brown joined Kerry and the Massachusetts delegation in opposing cuts to the Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford last year. Efforts like those helped him amass a $319,000-to-$11,000 advantage over Warren in election-year contributions from defense firms, campaign finance records show.
But Blumenthal said the importance of experience in garnering defense dollars is overstated. The Democrat, elected in 2010 and now sitting on the Armed Services Committee, said in an era of tightening defense budgets, the importance of seniority is “diminishing to the point of almost irrelevance.”
“A senator cannot persuade the president, the Armed Services Committee, not to mention the military itself, that dollars should be squandered for local interests,” Blumenthal said. “This process is so fact-driven now. We’re dealing with military professionals who will simply not sacrifice dollars willingly.”
Blumenthal added that a senator’s personal interest in military issues can compensate for lack of the seniority.
“What wins the day is the merits of the equipment,” he said. “I’ve been to Afghanistan three times. I can come back and tell my colleagues, ‘You should see what this helicopter can do.’ Nothing beats seeing this stuff on the ground.”