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New Senate Leaders Prepare for Next Term

November 14, 2006 at 5:39 PM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: Just after 8 this morning, 41 newly elected House members assembled on the Capitol steps for their freshman photograph. It’s a ritual for congressional rookies, 28 of whom this year are Democrats, 13 Republican.

Meanwhile, over on the Senate side, Democrats chose those who will lead their majority starting in January. As expected, they elected current Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada as their majority leader, while Illinois’ Dick Durbin, the current minority whip, will keep that same vote-counting role in the majority.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: We know that a 51-vote majority is as thin as they come and that, if we’re going to be successful, we need to work together on a bipartisan basis.

KWAME HOLMAN: As a result of their new majority status, Democrats also chose the chairmen of the various Senate committees. Michigan’s Carl Levin will head the Armed Services Committee. Joe Biden of Delaware will chair the Foreign Relations Committee. West Virginian Jay Rockefeller will head the Intelligence Committee. And Vermont’s Patrick Leahy will take over at the Judiciary Committee.

Tax and budget-related issues will be handled by Montana’s Max Baucus and North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, while New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman and California’s Barbara Boxer will oversee energy and environmental matters.

Tomorrow, Senate Republicans are expected to choose Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell as minority leader, while the race for whip is between Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander and Mississippi’s Trent Lott, who’s held both the whip and majority leader posts during his 18-year career.

New leadership bring major changes?

GWEN IFILL: For more on the changing face of leadership, we go to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: And for that, I'm joined by two well-seasoned Congress-watchers, Tom Mann from the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. They co-authored the recent book, "The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track."

Well, gentlemen, is Congress going to get back on track? Or the question to you, Norm, is, specifically, that the Democrats are now going to run both houses. How dramatically can they change things?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: Well, they're not going to turn the policy world upside-down, Margaret. First of all, the Senate still has that 60-vote hurdle that comes with the threat of a filibuster. And as Dick Durbin said, 51 votes doesn't give you the opportunity to be able to jam legislation through. And at the same time, the president retains the veto pen.

So we're not going to see a radical shift in legislation. But control of the agenda changes things dramatically, in terms of what comes up and when and what doesn't come up, like the president's tax cuts that are expiring. And the ability in the Senate to have the confirmation process in your hands makes a real difference when it comes to judges or executive appointees, so it's big stuff, but not radical.

MARGARET WARNER: Tom, now Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker, has promised, though, this six-item agenda, everything affecting, say, the minimum wage, negotiating for new Medicare drug prices, that she says she's going to get passed in 100 hours. Can that be done? How?

THOMAS MANN, Brookings Institution: Well, they're a little ambiguous about what 100 hours means. It really means 100 legislative hours, and that could be stretched over five or six weeks. In fact, for this Congress, it could take a whole year to spend that much time in session.

Her focus has been very much on this sort of micro-agenda, small matters, important but not terribly controversial, uniting the Democratic Party and bringing in some Republicans, as well. But the real agenda for her is to set the tone of how she is going to run the House. Is she going to restore regular order, be fair to the minority party?

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning letting the minority party also participate.

THOMAS MANN: Participate, exactly, and debate, deliberation, offer amendments on the floor, participate in conference committees, and the rest. And is she going to put forward a really tough ethics bill that deals with the culture of corruption on Capitol Hill? These, I think, are even more important tests for her and the Democrats than the substantive policy agenda that will get most of the attention.

The issue of ethics

MARGARET WARNER: So what can be done on the culture of corruption that the Democrats talked about? I mean, aren't they as much a part of the system, Norm, of lobbyists, contributions, and trips, and earmarked special legislation as Republicans?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: They are. And, of course, they have their own members who have ethical issues out there: William Jefferson, who may very well be indicted soon; Alan Mollohan, whose had issues with earmarks and the like.

MARGARET WARNER: West Virginia.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: But, in fact, you can make some changes here that at least establish that you're handling things in a different way. The fact is, Speaker Pelosi is committed to doing that. She said in a moment of great exuberance election eve that this would be the most ethical Congress in history, which is perhaps setting the bar, some would say, not very high, but others would say quite high.

But, you know, to do that at this point means taking on some of her own members. Plenty of Democrats -- let's face it -- would like to simply change positions where they're holding the whip and the Republicans are the ones taking the lashes now. And others would love to be in a position where they now get more money from lobbyists and have more opportunity to put their own people on K Street.

So she's just going to buck some in her own party. And as Tom said, the critical moment comes when the new Congress organizes. That's when you can make changes and you force people to vote up or down. If it doesn't happen in the early part of January, if we don't see the signals within the next week or two, then it's going to be much rougher sledding on that front.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning with new ethics rules?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: New ethics rules, but also with these commitments in the rules that you're going to open the process up, at least in many cases, to deliberation and debate on the floor. That includes, by the way, in this first 100-hour package. They may be relatively uncontroversial -- the minimum wage, for example -- but if you don't get Republicans engaged in the debate at the beginning, it's not a good signal as to where we're going to go down the road.

Democrats' influence on Iraq policy

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Iraq war, that's what voters were voting on. How much will the Democrats, Tom, be really driving Iraq policy? I mean, the president remains commander-in-chief.

THOMAS MANN: He does. And if he decides to stay the course -- he doesn't face another election -- it could be disastrous for his Republican Party, but in the end he's going to have to make the moves, because I think, at least for the first six months, eight months or longer, Congress is not going to use its hard power of writing new laws to restrict him of cutting off funds.

They're going to use their soft power of congressional hearings, of vigorous debate, of embracing Republican critics of the war, of getting military officers to testify, and begin subjecting the current policy to critical scrutiny and then giving voice to alternatives.

There are no good alternatives. Democrats certainly don't want to claim ownership of an alternative, because they'll pay the political cost of doing that. But they have to begin to change the whole debate on Iraq.

And they've already had some success: Rumsfeld is gone. The president has admitted it's not going well. Other people in the administration have said as much. It's begun.

MARGARET WARNER: So who will drive that? Will it be House Democrats or Senate Democrats? We identified some of the new Senate chairmen in that area, intelligence, foreign affairs, military. What about on the House side?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The House side will play an important role here. Of course, one thing to keep in mind is that I think the Democrats in both houses are looking to the Iraq Study Group with Lee Hamilton...

MARGARET WARNER: The Baker-Hamilton...

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: ... and Jim Baker as a lifeline for them, because they don't have a unified position. And you go from being able to say this war is awful, which most Americans agree with, to now having to bear some responsibility for governing.

Keep your eye on one person who has not gotten a lot of national attention, who could walk down the street and have people not know him at all: Ike Skelton, a veteran of Congress who is going to be the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. And he, along with Carl Levin, will set the tone here in terms of what the military options are and how we handle these things.

A lot of it, though, flows from the leadership, which will negotiate with the president and which will also set the larger tone on how much civility we have as we approach this awful issue of Iraq.

House committee changes

MARGARET WARNER: Now, on the House side, we do have, because of the rules of seniority, some old liberal warhorses assuming some committee chairmanship. And I'm thinking of, for example, Charlie Rangel on Ways and Means, Barney Frank on what used to be the Banking Committee, now called Financial Services, John Conyers on Judiciary.

Tom, how "liberal," quote, unquote, a direction are they going to try to drive policy in these two areas, the financial and on judiciary?

THOMAS MANN: They are old, liberal bulls, but they're also very practical politicians. Charlie Rangel is a perfect example of that. His voting record is liberal, and he's a wheeler-dealer. He's comfortable working with Republicans. He's not going to take steps that would prove futile, would be vetoed by the president or die in the Senate.

MARGARET WARNER: Higher taxes or...

THOMAS MANN: Oh, exactly. He's going to look to fix the alternative minimum tax, because it's hurting middle-class families, and there are a lot of Republicans concerned about that, as well. He's going to begin raising issues, setting the agenda for a broader kind of tax reform, but don't look for him rushing off to the left. And the same is true of the others. Barney Frank, very pragmatic.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, House Democrats are going to elect their leaders Thursday. And, as we all know, Nancy Pelosi is going to be speaker. But a controversy has erupted, Norm, over who's going to get the number two, pitting the minority whip, the long-time minority whip, Steny Hoyer, against John Murtha of Pennsylvania, whom Nancy Pelosi actually yesterday released a letter supporting him. What is going on there?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You know, it's interesting, Margaret. Mrs. Pelosi deftly avoided a series of controversies on leadership battles. Rahm Emanuel, who, of course, had a lot to do with this victory for Democrats ended up not challenging Jim Clyburn of South Carolina for a post that could have led to enormous controversy.

But by doing so, she's now stepped into another one. It's very unusual for a speaker-designate or one leader to step in and take a preferential position on another. In this case, where Steny Hoyer has been the whip, there's some animosity there between them, a history because they ran against each other. And Jack Murtha now, as her preferred candidate, however, has ethical issues of his own.

So this is a difficult position to be in. I should note that, when Newt Gingrich became speaker, he had a preference. He didn't issue a letter for a candidate for whip. And that candidate lost. You don't want to start out either getting into the middle of a controversy when you've got a narrow majority or losing right at the beginning. So this is one case in which I think she's made a serious misstep.

MARGARET WARNER: Half a sentence, is she going to really fight to get Murtha?

THOMAS MANN: No. In fact, I think the inside story may be she knows Hoyer is going to win and this is a consolation prize. That's the only rationale I can come up with for what she has done.

MARGARET WARNER: Tom Mann, Norm Ornstein, thank you both.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Thank you, Margaret.

THOMAS MANN: Thanks.