KWAME HOLMAN: Two years ago the stunning election of the first House Republican majority in four decades all but overshadowed the fact that Republicans also took majority control of the Senate after an eight-year absence. But that takeover was historic in its own right. The Senate's freshman class was comprised of 11 Republicans and no Democrats, the first all-Republican freshman class ever elected by popular vote. This year's Senate freshman class isn't quite as historic but it is distinctive. At 15 members it is the largest freshman class since 1980, and it expands by two the size of the Republican majority, a gain of some significance to Florida Republican Senator Connie Mack.
SEN. CONNIE MACK, (R) Florida: I don't know what it is. The psychology of going from 53-47 to 55-45 doesn't sound like it's much a change in numbers but there's something about it that we feel very good about.
KWAME HOLMAN: And according to Ron Elving, political editor of "Congressional Quarterly," this freshman class also is distinctive because of its definite ideological tilt.
RONALD ELVING, Congressional Quarterly: I think this is probably the most conservative freshman class that we've seen since 1980. And in some respects it might be even more conservative than the class that came in with Ronald Reagan's first landslide. And we had 14 Senators retire in this cycle. That's the most we've ever had retire in one cycle going back to the 19th century. And almost all the people--maybe two exceptions, three exceptions-- that are replacing those fourteen Senators, whether they're Republicans or Democrats, are more conservative than the person that they're replacing.
KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. Mack agrees.
SEN. CONNIE MACK: The overall message that I think came out of the election was frankly one for smaller government, balanced budgets, lower taxes, and candidates that generally were talking in that tone where the candidates said that, by and large, we're successful in this last election cycle.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Sen. Bob Kerrey, Democrat from Nebraska, says more important than the ideology of the new freshman class is the legislative ability they'll be replacing.
SEN. BOB KERREY, (D) Nebraska: We lost 15 members in the United States Senate, actually 16, counting the one incumbent, but 15 who left the body. That's 15 percent of the organization, and hundreds of years of experience, Alan Simpson, Sam Nunn, Jim Exon, Nancy Kassebaum, and these are tremendous people with tremendous talent who left the body. You lose Bill Bradley and you lose Paul Simon and David Pryor, you're losing a lot of experience. So, you know, when the issue of China comes up, the issue of trade comes up, the issue of education and these things come up, we need people, whether they're ideologically right or ideologically left, that have the capacity to come to that floor and make reasoned judgments, reasoned arguments, and good decisions because the impact of our decisions are quite substantial, not just on the country but on the world.
KWAME HOLMAN: The incoming freshman class includes nine Republicans and six Democrats. Thirteen are men, two are women. All but one of the fifteen freshmen previously held elected or public office. Eight were members of the House in the last Congress.
SEN. BOB KERREY: Which I think is in some cases a real advantage. These guys know how to write laws. They're experienced in the body. They're apt to be able to come into the Senate and hit the ground running and add a great deal.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Connie Mack, a former House member himself, says those eight freshmen moving over from the House will find big differences on the Senate side.
SEN. CONNIE MACK: In the House the majority can--I mean, they can write the map, draw the map of how a piece of legislation is going to develop from the beginning to the end. It can be orchestrated almost completely. I know that the guys on the House would say wait a minute, you're overstating it. But that's pretty close. And in the Senate any member can have an effect on legislation, whether you're a member of the minority or member of the majority. I mean, the rules of the Senate basically allow members to be active from day one.
KWAME HOLMAN: That means the six freshman Democrats, members of the minority, still can have an immediate impact.
SPOKESMAN: They are going to be valued members and very involved members.
RONALD ELVING: Even one Senator can bring the mechanism to a halt. Two or three Senators can extend that halt for a long time. And by the time you've multiplied that all the way up to forty-five, which is the number of Democrats in the new Senate, you can pretty much be close to an equal partner in setting the agenda.
SPOKESPERSON: I'm delighted to be here and to have the opportunity to work with Trent and my fellow Republicans.
KWAME HOLMAN: As for the nine Republican freshmen, they have the added benefit of being in the majority. But they're not expected to mount a campaign of sweeping revolutionary change like Republicans in the last Congress did.
SEN. CONNIE MACK: I think we all learned from the experience of the past two years.
KWAME HOLMAN: And the tradition of the Senate doesn't encourage new members to come in and shake things up.
RONALD ELVING: It has its own ways, its own customs, its own language, its own rules. And it does not particularly appreciate a full head of steam on the part of people who have just come in the door. That's not the way the Senate works. And Trent Lott, the new Senate Majority Leader, he is going to at one way or another, at one time or another find a way to direct each of these new freshmen and their great energy and momentum into the manner and the methods of the Senate. So I don't think we'll see anything like the kind of takeover the agenda, get it all done at once rush that we saw in the House after the election of 1994.
KWAME HOLMAN: But on specific issues the Senate Republican freshmen could become every bit the activists, particularly if groups like the Christian Coalition are able to motivate them.
SEN. BOB KERREY: If they come in here with a very conservative social agenda on choice, on civil rights, on a couple of other issues, if they come in here and press that agenda in a militant fashion, as I said, it could make a big difference. There are now a majority of people in the United States Senate who think abortion should be legal under most circumstances. I mean, that's a big change, not a small item. It's a very, very big change. Alan Simpson was pro-choice. Nancy Kassebaum was pro-choice. They've been replaced by people who are not pro-choice. So, you know, that's--I just pick as an example, if they now want--if the people who helped them get here now want to call that chip in and say, let's now press the bat and push a constitutional amendment out of the Judiciary Committee, it would unquestionably change the political dynamic in the body.
KWAME HOLMAN: Further hints about the impact of the freshman Senators may not come until next month when they react to the President's State of the Union Address setting out "his" agenda for the new 105th Congress.