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New Democratic Majority in Congress Leans Bipartisan

November 18, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Although the Senate is poised to have at least a 57-seat Democratic majority, the new Congress has begun to reach across party lines. Analysts mull the pros and cons of the Party's majority, its implications for President-elect Barack Obama and the unresolved Senate races.
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GWEN IFILL: Next, the leadership and shape of the new Congress. Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The horde of news people gathered in the Senate’s Ohio Clock Corridor this morning were eager to discover the fate of two lawmakers, Joe Lieberman and Ted Stevens.

The Democrats emerged from their meeting first. After reporting the results of their leadership elections, Majority Leader Harry Reid turned to the Lieberman issue.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: Joe Lieberman is a Democrat. He’s part of this caucus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: An Independent Democrat from Connecticut, Lieberman angered some in the Democratic Caucus by endorsing and then actively campaigning for Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

At least three senators in the Democratic Caucus demanded that Lieberman be stripped of his prized chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee as punishment.

But behind closed doors today, Democrats voted 42-13 to keep Lieberman in his post. However, the same group condemned statements made by Lieberman during the campaign and did take away the chairmanship of an Environment and Public Works Subcommittee.

Reid said today’s decision was about the future, not the past.

SEN. HARRY REID: If you look at the problems we face as a nation, is this a time we walk out of here saying, “Boy, did we get even?” I am very satisfied with what we did today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lieberman thanked his fellow Democrats for what he said was reconciliation and not retribution.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), Connecticut: I know that my colleagues in the Senate Democratic Caucus were moved not only by the kind words that Sen. Reid said about my long-time record, but by the appeal from President-elect Obama himself that the nation now unite to confront our very serious problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Minutes later, when Senate Republicans appeared following their leadership elections, the mood was much different. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked repeatedly about Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who was convicted last month of seven felonies for lying on Senate financial disclosure forms about $250,000 in gifts he had received.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader: The conference agreed to postpone the matter until we knew the outcome of the election in Alaska.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republicans had been scheduled to take up a resolution from South Carolina’s Jim DeMint calling for Stevens to be expelled from their conference. But with election returns in Alaska showing Stevens at that point trailing his Democratic challenger by more than 1,000 votes, the Republicans decided to wait.

Later in the day, Democrat Mark Begich pulled even further ahead.

Besides Alaska, two other U.S. Senate races remain undecided. In Minnesota, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman leads Democrat Al Franken by just 206 votes out of almost 3 million cast. A statewide hand recount is slated to begin tomorrow.

In Georgia, meanwhile, Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin are set to meet in a runoff on Dec. 2, after Chambliss failed to reach 50 percent of the vote on Election Day.

For a look at what to expect from Congress come January and an update on the Senate races that have yet to be resolved, we turn to Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily.

And Nate Silver, he runs the political Web site fivethirtyeight.com. The site is non-partisan, but Silver personally supported Barack Obama during the presidential campaign.

Welcome to you both.

Reaching across party lines

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Amy, let me start with you. Joe Lieberman, what's the significance of the Senate Democrats letting him keep that committee chairmanship after he campaigned so hard for John McCain?

AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: Well, we heard a lot on the trail, both from Barack Obama and from folks running for Congress about the need to reach out across party lines, be more bipartisan.

This was the Senate Democrats' first attempt at being bipartisan, right, reaching across the aisle to a guy who ostensibly ran against them or supported the person who was running against their nominee last time. So this is their first attempt at detente, I guess, along party lines.

But, look, the reality is this is -- this is a Congress that at least at the outset is saying, "We're not interested in getting back into the same sort of petty politics, party politics that marked the last few years," that the public has clearly stated that they are sick and tired of the way Washington has worked, and it would do us very little good to look like we're taking out some sort of petty internal affairs onto the Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Nate Silver, what does it say about President-elect Obama, who had weighed in, said he wanted Joe Lieberman to be kept in the Democratic fold, and the direction the party's headed in?

NATE SILVER, Fivethirtyeight.com: Yes, I think this decision may say more about Obama's style of governance than the Democratic Senate.

I spoke to Howard Dean earlier today. And he spoke of what he called a mandate for reconciliation, where Obama did have a mandate, but maybe only in a certain way, where we have to bring the country back together in Dean's opinion and in Obama's, I think.

So, you know, if Obama wants to reach out and work with Republicans to get something like a health care bill passed, he should probably get kind of someone who straddles the fence, you know, to be in his caucus before he kind of reaches truly across the aisle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But this is a tone, Amy, we think we're going to hear down the road?

AMY WALTER: Right. I mean, I think it was something that we've been hearing actually from the very beginning of, you know, this post-election time period, I guess I could say, that, you know, you had Nancy Pelosi coming out and saying, "We're going to govern from the center." You've had Harry Reid who's coming out and saying, "We need to be bipartisan."

Obviously, a lot of this emanating from the campaign of Barack Obama, who's said all along he wants a different kind of campaign and run a different kind of government.

Undecided Senate races

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Nate Silver, what about Alaska's Ted Stevens? The Republicans had said that they were going to try to expel him from the caucus, but they changed their mind.

NATE SILVER: Well, I think they won't have that chance, most likely. No one's willing to call the race yet until all the votes have been counted, but if you look at where the outstanding votes are, they're in areas that voted for Mark Begich in the first place.

There are some provisional ballots, as well. Those almost always favor Democrats. It's kind of poorer voters usually who vote out of their precinct, but their votes will be counted.

I think, at the end of the day, Begich will win by 2,000 or 3,000, maybe even 4,000 votes. Even Ted Stevens' pollster has kind of conceded that it's an extreme long shot for him at this point.

AMY WALTER: And, quite frankly, why would the Republican conference want to bring attention to somebody who's been convicted and then we have to talk about kicking him out of the conference and there would be all the talk about who voted him and who didn't. Why even bring it up?

As Nate says, it is going to be -- they would like to have the vote counted by tomorrow. I don't know if that's going to be true; I don't know if we're going to actually need a recount.

But the bottom line is, it looks more than likely that Begich will end up winning this election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Amy, in Georgia, we have an unresolved race, a run-off December 2nd. I guess it's two weeks from today. What is that looking like?

AMY WALTER: Well, it's funny. You know, I had thought that we would be talking about whether Democrats get to that magic number of 60, that this was going to be the one race we'd be waiting on. Little did I know that we were going to be waiting for Alaska and we'll talk probably about Minnesota, as well.

But this is a race that is still very close, if you look at the polls, but polls don't tell you much in a run-off election because we know that turnout is the key. And it's going to be significantly lower than it was obviously during the presidential election.

So this is really about which campaign is going to be best able to motivate and turn out their voters. This is going to be a test in many ways of the so-called, you know, Obama coattails, not in the fact that Obama is going out actually and campaigning for Jim Martin, because he hasn't physically gone there. We've seen other Democrats...

JUDY WOODRUFF: But he is running -- he will be running radio ads.

AMY WALTER: That's right, but other Democrats, high-profile Democrats have. But it will be this test of whether this coalition that Barack Obama got enthused during this campaign, African-Americans and younger voters, whether they stay engaged as we go into what is a non-presidential election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Nate Silver, what about Minnesota? They're doing a hand recount there.

NATE SILVER: Yes, I mean, in certain ways, Minnesota is a model for how you should do a recount. They have optical scan ballots. It's kind of the SAT form ballots, which are -- are much more accurate than the kind of punch cards we had in Florida eight years ago.

At the same time, they're recounting every ballot. All counties have the same standards. And there's a second part of the process where any disputes kind of go in front of the state canvassing board. And they'll go through them one by one.

So you really might have days and even weeks where they're debating, did this voter circle a name and then cross it out, or is that a real intent to vote, or kind of a stray marker somewhere? It's going to take a while. It's the way it "should be handled," quote, unquote, but we shouldn't be looking for any kind of a quick resolution.

Ideological lining of Congress

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Nate, let's broaden it out. What difference does it make for the Democrats? We know they're at least going to have a 57-seat majority. What difference does it make whether they end up with 58, 59, or even 60?

NATE SILVER: Well, the math, I think, is a little bit fuzzy here. They're certainly close enough where, if Obama has a mandate and has coattails, there will be some Republicans in very blue states, the two women up in Maine, Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, a state Obama won by about 10 points, and he's up for re-election in 2010, they're not going to be in a position where they have the political capital to obstruct an Obama agenda.

Conversely, if Obama is unpopular, you might have some Democrats in the South, the two senators from Arkansas, maybe Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, where Obama is not popular. They want some distance there.

So I think it really is, for the first six months or so, where the president is at, where his political capital and his approval rating are at. He'll get 60-plus on votes if he's popular, has a mandate. If not, though, he might not even get a majority on some of those issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that making a difference, Amy?

AMY WALTER: Having the 60 votes or not having it?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

AMY WALTER: In some ways, it's not all that wonderful to have 60 votes. It seems like a great thing, because you can then push your legislation through. At the same time, then you get all of the blame when things go badly.

To talk about obstructionist Republicans sounds pretty silly when you have 60 people who are from your own party who could actually push things forward.

And, you know, Nate makes the point, which is true, as well, is there are a whole bunch of Democrats on many policy issues who may differ either with the president or with congressional leaders. The 60 votes really is for procedural purposes. On the policy, there may not be the big numbers that they're looking for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So can we tell roughly how this Senate is lining up and the House, for that matter, ideologically with this new president?

AMY WALTER: Well, it's really fascinating. When you look at some of the new folks and the people who are up in 2010 -- Nate points to a couple folks. Blanche Lincoln in up in Arkansas, for example.

But you also have new members in the Senate from nontraditional blue states: Mark Warner in Virginia, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire. So those are going to be folks to watch.

The House is even more fascinating, I think, because you look at just the folks who are coming back to Congress who are Democrats who don't have the Barack Obama number versus McCain number in congressional districts yet, but if you look at the districts that George Bush carried, there are Democrats who sit in 80 of those districts.

Now look at how many Republicans sit in districts carried by John Kerry? Five.

All right, so the big deal about reaching across the aisle, actually, there are very few of them to reach out to. It's really going to be how well Obama does within his own caucus and for those 80 Democrats, many of whom sit in Republican districts, how willing they are to come along.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So much yet to unfold.

AMY WALTER: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy Walter, Nate Silver, thank you both. We appreciate it.

AMY WALTER: Thank you.