Compromise Key to Progress in Democratic Senate

Capitol Hill Power Swap

Graphics comparing current congressional leaders with projected leaders in the new Congress.

When the 110th Congress convenes in January, both chambers will be in the control of Democrats, the first time since 1994 that's happened. But they will have just be a one-seat majority in the Senate. Democratic leaders say they know they'll have to reach out to Republicans to get anything done.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The latest good news for Democrats is that in addition to the House, they will have a majority in the U.S. Senate. The bad news for the Democrats may also be that they will have a majority in the U.S. Senate. It is not an easy group to control, as Republicans found out repeatedly in recent years. Yesterday, Democrats learned for certain that they would have that challenge. Two Republican Senators conceded they had lost - George Allen of Virginia and Conrad Burns in Montana.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports on what happens next.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Burns conceded in a phone call to Democrat Jon Tester, who was said to be on his way to the barber to get his flattop haircut trimmed. In a statement, Burns said he fought the good fight and came up just a bit short - about 3,400 votes short out of a little under 400,000 cast. In Virginia, the race was even tighter, proportionally. There, Democrat James Webb won some 7,200 votes more than Republican incumbent George Allen. More than 2.3 million ballots were cast in Virginia.

Allen conceded before supporters in Alexandria.

Senator GEORGE ALLEN (Republican, Virginia): And this season, the people of Virginia - who I always call the owners of the government - they have spoken. And I respect their decision. The Bible teaches us that there's a time and place for everything. And today, I've called and congratulated Jim Webb and his team for their victory. They had the prevailing winds.

(Soundbite of chanting and cheering)

Sen. HARRY REID: Thank you all very much. Thank you.

NAYLOR: Those winds blew at the back of the Democratic soon-to-be majority leader Harry Reid as he walked through a gauntlet of cheering Senate aides outside the Capitol yesterday. Reid declared the election over and said it's now a time for bipartisanship.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): We believe that this country has spoken loudly and clearly. There must be a change of direction in Iraq. We have to have results in doing something to make healthcare more affordable and more available. We have to do something to create energy independence. It's time we do something, of course, about education.

NAYLOR: Doing almost anything in the closely divided Senate will require bi-partisanship. Most legislation can be blocked by the minority in the Senate, which Democrats well know, having stopped plenty of GOP initiatives - from tax cuts to judicial nominations. Democratic Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois says his party acknowledges its new power has its limits.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois; Senate Minority Whip): A one-vote majority allows you to organize and to propose an agenda. But before you can pass anything important and controversial, you'd better be prepared to put 60 votes on the board. That means we will need to work with our friends on the Republican side of the aisle to reach some consensus in moving forward.

NAYLOR: Still, a one-vote majority will give Senate Democrats powerful committee chairmanships, allow them to hire more staff, and determine what bills reach the floor. Political scientist John Pitney, of Claremont McKenna College in California, says the flavor of Washington will be different. How much so, he says, will be up to Democrats.

Professor JOHN PITNEY (Claremont McKenna College): A lot depends on what the Democrats want to do. If the Democrats want to score points, they can do that without Republican votes. If they want to make laws, they're going to have to work with the moderate Republicans and try to build some coalitions with the conservatives in the Senate.

NAYLOR: Areas where there could be some consensus building include immigration, energy and spending bills. On other issues, there probably won't be much reaching out. Democrats say they want more moderate judicial nominees from the Bush administration. And they're likely to use their control over committees to initiate aggressive oversight hearings and investigations into Bush administration policies in Iraq.

While there is little they can do directly to change those policies, Democrats are already claiming some success. Durbin says the Democrats' win forced the president to dismiss Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and that the pending nomination of U.N. Ambassador John Bolton is dead.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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