A New Look for the House and Senate

Our weekly Political Junkie with NPR's political editor Ken Rudin examines the new freshman class of senators and representatives in Washington and Trent Lott's return to a leadership position in the Senate.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LYNN NEARY, host:

It's Wednesday. Time for the Political Junkie.

It's barely a week after voters have handed Democrats control of Congress in the midterm elections and already both parties face new elections of their own. Democrats John Murtha and Steny Hoyer duke it out for the number two slot in the House. And the new minority party in Congress invites old Republican stalwart Trent Lott to return to a leadership position in the Senate. Plus, now that election '06 is over, presidential wannabes line up for the contest in '08.

Do you have questions about the internal wrangling in Congress or about the new class of senators and representatives in Washington? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. Ken Rudin is with us as always. He is political editor and our resident Political Junkie. And you can always read his column and check out his podcast at npr.org.

Good to have you with us, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: It's been interesting, hasn't it?

RUDIN: It has been.

NEARY: And let's start with today's news because in the Senate, Trent Lott won the minority whip position. He spoke earlier today. He said he was ready to wrangle votes for the Republicans. Let's take a listen.

Senator TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi; Senate Minority Whip): I'm honored to be a part of this leadership team to support Mitch McConnell and all of my colleagues to do a job that I've always really loved the most: count the votes. And all Mitch is going to want me to do is find a way to count the magic 60 or the magic 51, and I'll do my very best in that effort. Thank you very much.

NEARY: So, Ken, is this surprising at all that Trent Lott is now back in a leadership position, given his fall from grace just four years ago?

RUDIN: I don't think it's surprising. I think it's shocking. I think - for example, two days ago, Lamar Alexander was saying that he had 30 votes. He was - been campaigning - Lamar Alexander, the senator from Tennessee, has been campaigning for this whip position for like 18 months.

He felt he had it locked up. Trent Lott only got in the race a couple of days ago, but Lott is a serious infighter. He's been in Senate since '89. He knows where the votes are. He knows how to count votes, and that's what he did when he was whip under Bob Dole. And he did it today by beating Lamar Alexander 25 to 24.

NEARY: Wow. So he and minority leader Mitch McConnell will be presiding over the Republicans in the Senate. What's the make up of the GOP in the Senate now?

RUDIN: Well, I mean, as far as geographically and ideologically, it's probably more conservative than it had been. It's certainly more - it's smaller than that. I mean, it's the first time in 12 years they're out of the majority. But it's interesting - you know, Mitch McConnell moves up to minority leader, succeeding Bill Frist.

Frist really didn't have a successful record as a majority leader. A lot of the programs he wanted, even with the Republican Senate, did not get done. Mitch McConnell has worked with Democrats across the aisle in the past. He's probably more of a giver, a trader with votes, as is Lott than Bill Frist had been.

So there might be less rancor. I mean, we always like to say that every time there's a new Congress, there will be less rancor. Sometimes we kind of think that McConnell is capable of doing it, but given the fact that the last campaign - last week's campaign was so polarizing, so ugly on both sides - it's hard to see both of them having much common ground.

NEARY: All right, let's move over the House and let's talk about the Democrats. John Murtha, who apparently has the support of Nancy Pelosi, the likely speaker to be, in a fight with Steny Hoyer over the number two position.

RUDIN: This has gotten very, very ugly. And it's probably what the Democrats did not want to do. Here they are winning the House for the first time in 12 years, wanting to celebrate, you know, and they are so excited about this. And yet, this is a very ugly and nasty battle.

Steny Hoyer is a number two member of the Democrats in the House under Nancy Pelosi when she was minority leader. But they had run against each other five years ago for whip. She had beaten Hoyer pretty convincingly. As a matter of fact, John Murtha was her campaign manager. So there's bad blood there to begin with.

But the problem is - and here's another problem with John Murtha. John Murtha has been under some ethical - there's been ethical questions about him from day one. I mean, he is a national figure of having, you know, broken with the Iraqi war last year and come out for a withdrawal, and he became the hero of many people who hate this war.

But at the same time there are ethical questions about him that date back to 1980 in the Abscam scandal where an alleged Arab sheik - you know, it was an FBI agent dressed as a sheik - offered him a bribe on videotape. Now, Murtha did not take the bribe. He said, I would not accept it at this time, I can't do business at this time. Oh, and he was never charged. But that has always hung over him like an ugly cloud. And today, he said that the Hoyer people are swift voting him. They feel that they are trying to - a whispering campaign against Murtha on ethics questions.

NEARY: Yeah. Well, who's likely to prevail?

RUDIN: Well, I think, I mean, you know, never take anybody's worth for how many votes you have, because 0 as I just said earlier - Lamar Alexander thought he had the vote. I think Steny Hoyer does win, but the fact that Nancy Pelosi's backing Murtha is a big step. It will be interesting to see how far she campaigns for him.

NEARY: Yeah. Well, and if Steny Hoyer does win, does that undermine Nancy Pelosi's leadership?

RUDIN: Well, it - look, it's at the secret ballot, and, of course, it's personal. I mean, Hoyer - I'm sorry, Pelosi and Murtha do go back a long time. They've been very, very close, but it is interesting that - again, the first female speaker in history, the first Democratic speaker in 12 years, as she's coming to office she has a very good chance of having her number two being a rival of hers. And that's not what the Democrats like to see.

NEARY: And just quickly, John Boehner is the most likely choice for House minority leader?

RUDIN: He is. But again, he's part of the old leadership, even though he was just barely part of the leadership, because - but again he's part of the old, lame duck Republican leadership that did lose the House. There are some questions about his relationship when the leadership - what he had to do with the Mark Foley scandal and what he did, if anything, to cover it up or whether the Republicans did. And he's being challenged by Mike Pence, a strong, young conservative from Indiana who says it's time for a new blood.

NEARY: We are talking with our own Political Junkie Ken Rudin about the winds of changed that are wafting through Capitol Hill this week. If you'd like to ask him a question or have a comment, give us a call at 800-989-8255. And we're going to take a call now from Prince in Sacramento, California.

PRINCE (Caller): Yeah, hello.

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.

PRINCE: So my question was, so, the Democrats they just nominated Nancy Pelosi as the speaker of the House, if not mistaken. And do you think that in any way is trying to prepare the American people for say, like - since she's the first woman to be the speaker of the House - Hilary Clinton's running for president in '08, trying to get the American people used to our seeing a woman in such a powerful position?

RUDIN: Well, I don't think that they'll putting up Nancy Pelosi as speaker to help Hilary Clinton to become president. I mean, Nancy Pelosi is becoming speaker because she is the leader of the Democratic Party when she took over as whip. And then as minority leader, she led her party to the promised land, and she deserves it more than anybody else on the Democratic side. That's why she's not even being challenge.

As far as 2008, I mean, obviously, Hilary's name is out there. It's interesting she does not campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire. Those are the two states she has not gone into. But she's, you know, considered a solid six years in the Senate. She's reelected with 65 percent last week. And, you know, she's campaigned for a lot of Democrats around the country. If there's such a thing as a front-runner two years in advance, I would say it's Hilary Clinton, but, you know, front-runners have a way of being knocked down on (unintelligible).

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Prince. We are talking with NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin. He's also known as the political junkie. And you can read his Political Junkie column on npr.org. Right now, you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Ken, as long as it's been brought up, let's move to 2008. No sooner do we get finished with the 2006 elections then it looks like everything is getting geared towards the presidential election coming up. Already, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack - if I'm pronouncing that correctly - he wasted no time in announcing his candidacy, but that is not exactly a household name. Who is he? Tell us something about him.

RUDIN: Well, he is the outgoing governor of Iowa. He could have run again for another term, but decided not to. He's Catholic. He's a socially - kind of conservative, but he appeals to very populist list roots in the Democratic Party. He's a good campaigner, but in the latest polls I saw in Iowa - again, it's two years in advance - he's well down the pack in single digits.

You know, Tom Harkin was a senator from Iowa who ran for president 1992, and he won the caucuses overwhelmingly. But they suddenly became meaningless because Harkin was from Iowa. Vilsack has to compete with a lot of Democrats, specifically John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina who's basically living in Iowa this past couple of years, you know, trying to rebound from his 2004 - I'm sorry, 2000 - oh yeah, 2004 presidential defeat. But he is very popular there.

Barack Obama's name has been mentioned. He is talking about - he told Tim Russert a few weeks ago that he's considering it. Who knows what he would do, shaking up the field…

NEARY: But, of course, then there's Hilary Clinton. I mean, that's the…

RUDIN: She's…

NEARY: She's the front-runner? I mean, if there can be a front-runner at this point.

RUDIN: Well, she has a ton of money, and she spent $30 million against almost nonexistent opposition. But she won very big, and, you know, she has a lot of chits, a lot of people like her. But a lot of Democrats tell me that they are afraid of a Hilary Clinton nomination because they think that either the Republicans will tear her apart or the country wouldn't be ready for it or she's just too polarizing.

NEARY: But in New York…

RUDIN: They love her and hate her.

NEARY: In New York, she got some of - some conservatives and some Republicans to vote for her.

RUDIN: That's the Hilary argument that says take a look at the upstate New York vote, which, you know, always had been staunchly Republican. She won them over by her hard work, and she's not a showboat. Clearly, she did not showboat her six years in the Senate. She did her hard work, and it showed with the upstate Republican vote.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call from Erin. And he is calling from Portland, Oregon. Hi, Erin.

ERIN (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

ERIN: I was just calling to you to ask your guest if he thought this is at all possible. It's kind of my dream for '08 to have Al Gore as the presidential nominee and Barack Obama as the VP.

RUDIN: Well, you know, that's one name that is not on many polls, but more people talk about Al Gore than ever - more than ever, certainly more than they did in the last campaign. He's come out - he was early against the war. Remember, Hilary Clinton voted for the war, as is John Edwards and John Kerry and a lot of other Democrats.

Gore has been opposed to the war from the beginning. He's strong on the environment, and he says that, you know, he's really not looking at that. And when you look at Gore, look at all the weight he's put on, you think he's maybe not being running for president. But a lot of Democrats tell me that that's also his - their wish list, too, that Al Gore should run again. And we've seen it before. Remember Richard Nixon losing a narrow election in 1960, coming back 8 years later? So there's history to show for that.

ERIN: I recently saw him in Oregon giving his presentation, The Inconvenient Truth, and everyone was asking him whether or not he was going to run and he kind of evaded the question, which gave me a great deal of hope.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks for calling in.

RUDIN: That would be an interesting ticket, though, Gore/Obama.

NEARY: And let's move over to the Republican side. You have some very well known names: John McCain, Rudolf Giuliani. But then there are other lesser knowns. Let's run down the list there.

RUDIN: Well, Congressman Duncan Hunter - who had been chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who's now no longer a chairman because the Republicans lost the House - he's talking about running for president. I mean, the last member of the House who was elected president was James Garfield in 1880, so - but he would also be the first hunter to run for president or vice president since Richard Cheney. So that would be interesting, too.

But - there's also - back to Giuliani. He just started - he's formed a exploratory committee this week. And a lot of people - if you look at the polls - they see him really high up in the polls. But Giuliani - I say this over and over again - he is pro-gay rights. He is anti-gun. He is pro-choice. This is the - they're still Republican Party, no matter what happened last Tuesday. It's still the Republican Party. These are not the ideas of the GOP.

NEARY: All right. Let's see if we can get more call in here from Aaron in Wilmington, Delaware. Hi. Go ahead.

AARON (Caller): Hi. I have a question about Trent Lott.

NEARY: Okay.

AARON: Specifically, I mean, when he was sort of kicked out of office a few years ago, he didn't really get any support from the Bush administration or from Karl Rove or from any of those people. And I got the impression that they wanted him gone, and this was their excuse to do it. And I imagine that being back in power, I'm sort of wondering if this is a worst nightmare situation for Bush having a minority whip in the Senate who does not have good feelings towards him. I'm sure…

NEARY: All right. I'm going to let Ken answer that question because, we're running out of time. Thanks for the call.

RUDIN: But that's a great question. And it's absolutely true that Bush definitely wanted Lott out four years ago. But the problem was also that Bill Frist was seen as a puppet of the White House, that he really was not an independent thinker, that he was a creation of the White House. And I think having - given the fact that Bush is so unpopular, maybe a new Republican leadership may be better off showing their independence.

NEARY: Right. Ken, thanks so much for being with us.

RUDIN: Thanks, Lynn.

NEARY: Ken is NPR's political editor. You can find his Political Junkie column at npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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