1. Rep Darrell Issa, California Republican
Washington has a new sheriff. Issa will chair the House Oversight Committee, with the power to instigate investigations against the White House and anyone else who the runs afoul of the 57-year-old Californian. Issa promises a busy year: He’s already announced that he’d like 280 hearings in 2011. During the first two years of the Obama administration, Issa fired off scores of letters to the Democrats, demanding investigations and asking questions about the White House’s behavior. (He’s called Obama, “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.”) “We’ll get a lot more answers to our questions in the majority than the minority,” he told The Daily Beast. “How acrimonious that gets is really up to them.”
2. Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican
In the House minority, the Iowa Republican was a loudmouth, huffing and puffing about the “slow-motion holocaust” that is illegal immigration. Come January, when King will be installed as the chairman of the immigration subcommittee, the hardliner will become a leading voice on American immigration policy. “The line of scrimmage has moved closer to our goal line,” King told The Daily Beast recently, “and you’ve got a different team calling the plays.” What might those plays look like? King has called for an electrified fence to be added to the border. He’d like to deny children of illegal immigrants born in the United States the right to citizenship, something traditionally upheld by the Constitution.
3. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, Illinois Democrat
If Steve King represents the new hawkish reality for immigration policy in Washington, Luis Gutiérrez will front the stubborn opposition. The Chicago congressman is fed up with his party’s inability to pass legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors, so he’s preparing activists for full-on César Chávez mode. Look out for protests and sit-ins with Gutiérrez holding the bullhorn. And don’t think he'll be directing the movement’s ire at Republicans. A civil war within the Democratic Party is in the offing. “We need to decouple the movement for comprehensive immigration reform and justice for immigrants from the legislative process and from the Democratic Party process,” he told The Daily Beast.
4. Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican
The Democrats aren’t the only ones who risk being torn asunder in 2011. There will be plenty of talk about whether John Boehner can contain the Tea Party wing of his party. Even before the session’s start, plans to expand the federal government’s debt ceiling are giving the future speaker a headache. Who might benefit from a back-bench revolt? Eric Cantor, Boehner’s No. 2. The 47-year-old Virginian has assiduously created an identity for himself as face of the new Republican guard. The last Republican revolution led to an intraparty putsch. Cantor could be the one left standing if a fight breaks out.
5. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican
The scion of an Alaskan political dynasty has just survived one such fight. Tea Party hunk Joe Miller pushed Murkowski out of the Republican primary—but then Murkowski pushed back, knocking him silly at the polls. The victory gave the senator a new lease on life. Her presence in the Senate helps bolster the scrappy group of moderate Republicans, like the eight who voted to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, placing her in a cohort sure to get a lot of attention from the White House. Plus, Murkowski’s return to Washington guarantees the presence of one of Sarah Palin’s most prominent critics (they have a long and contentious history). Expect more smack talk from the woman who called Palin a dim bulb after brushing back Miller, Palin’s stalking horse.
6. Rep. Kristi Noem, South Dakota Republican
With the arrival of scores of Tea Party Republicans, not to mention a handful of Mama Grizzlies, Palin will have plenty of new friends in the nation’s capital. Noem shares much of Palin’s hinterlands charisma. The 38-year-old mother is a rancher and hunter; she’s also a savvy fundraiser, pulling in more than any other Republican challenger in the country. Even before taking office, Noem was tapped to give a weekly address for the Republicans. A party looking for new (and OK, attractive) faces has scored a big one in Noem’s election.
7. Rep. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican
Like Noem, Scott will be at the front of the charging horde of freshmen Republicans. Scott will be the first black Republican to represent South Carolina since Reconstruction. That he won a primary victory over a man named Thurmond only added to the historic nature of his accomplishment. Now it’s time to get governing. Before settling in Washington, Scott made headlines by rebuffing an offer to join the Congressional Black Caucus. “My campaign was never about race,” he said.
8. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat
The rise of young Republicans like Noem and Scott was supposed to signal the fall of Nancy Pelosi. As soon as Election Night, the whispering began that the once powerful speaker would sneak out of Washington by Christmas, leaving chastened Democrats to fend for themselves. “People are very, very concerned that she won’t gracefully step aside,” one House insider told The Daily Beast. Well, those people had good reason to be concerned. Pelosi is not stepping aside. She’s even staying in the leadership. Now we’ll get to see how she fares without the speaker’s gavel, whether she’ll hold a Boehner-esque hard line against the GOP or show some talent for getting Democrats to the table.
9. Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Democrat
Pelosi is not the only Democrat changing roles this year. Emanuel gave up his White House gig as chief of staff to run for mayor of Chicago. The election isn’t taking place until Feb. 22, and in the meantime, the former D.C. macher has transformed himself into city retail politician. His campaign hit an early speed bump when opponents questioned whether he met residency requirements. Emanuel won that challenge. Winning the election by overcoming Chicago’s famously brutal politics may be the easiest part for Emanuel. He would follow Richard M. Daley, a City Hall legend who was reelected six times.
10. Gov. Mitch Daniels, Indiana Republican
Over in the Hoosier State, Gov. Mitch Daniels is said to possess the smartest brain in the Republican Party other than the one that belongs to Rep. Paul Ryan. His good buddy Haley Barbour may have more of a talent at creating headlines, but the Indiana Republican is an admired member of the pack plotting a presidential run in 2012. Daniels may have some local competition: Rep. Mike Pence seems poised to mount a presidential campaign himself, but the pair would be gunning for different slices of the GOP electorate. Chamber of Commerce Republicans are alive and well if this guy runs for president.
11. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Independent
Everyone will be keeping a close eye on the independent and his relationship with home-state Democrats. Lieberman’s vigorous support for ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has led some to wonder whether he is trying to make amends with Connecticut Democrats who voted for his primary opponent in 2006. On the right, Linda McMahon has signaled that she’s not tired of running for public office. In Washington, Lieberman has found himself to be the most popular lunchmate, as Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell compete for his affection. For now, Lieberman seems most comfortable playing footsie with the Democrats.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.