Newly Elected Lawmakers Look Ahead

Both parties in both the House and Senate elected new leaders this week and prepared for the new balance of power in the 110th Congress. In the end, the biggest surprise may have been the lack of surprise.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, why veggies vary widely when it comes to vitamins. But first, this week the newly elected members of Congress, the one that gets started in January, met to elect their leaders, House and Senate, Republican and Democratic. And in the end the biggest surprise may have been the lack of surprise. Joining us to talk about all four contests is NPR's Julie Rovner. Julie, thanks for being with us.

JULIE ROVNER: My pleasure.

SIMON: Any theme that emerges from all four of the contests?

ROVNER: Yeah. I think the theme you'd have to use is they're dancing with the ones that brung them. With the exception of the people who are retiring, Bill Frist, who was the majority leader in the Senate, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who's stepping down from the leadership - he hasn't retired from the House - basically we're seeing all the same leaders that we saw before. It's just that the Democrats will now be in the majority and the Republicans in the minority.

SIMON: There is one new old name, or old new name, of course, and that's Trent Lott. He was the former majority leader, had to leave after making overly fulsome comments at Strom Thurmond's birthday, and now he's back.

ROVNER: That was indeed a surprise. He really entered the race for - he's going to be the minority whip in the Senate and he entered the race really at the last minute, defeated Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and I think he'd been working his way back slowly. He's an old institutionalist in the Senate. He knows a lot about it. He'd been in the leadership in the House. His Republican colleagues thought he'd spent his time in the wilderness and it was time to bring him back.

SIMON: And does his return say something about the nature of the Republican Party now?

ROVNER: Certainly in the Senate it says something about the geography of the Republican Party, that is really a party of the South, that the leaders, if you look at them, the Senate Republican leaders are now from Kentucky and Mississippi and Texas and Arizona. And we used to talk about the solid South, meaning the solid south for Democrats, and now you have the solid...

SIMON: When Strom Thurmond was a Democrat.

ROVNER: That's exactly right. Now you have the solid South for Republicans.

SIMON: There's a lot of ink spilled all over the pages this week about Nancy Pelosi. She won her own race unanimously to be the next speaker of the House, but the candidate she backed for number two lost, and by wide margin.

ROVNER: Yes, that's right. She wanted John Murtha, who of course had managed her campaign several years ago when she was running for the Democratic whip spot, and she was - she really didn't just endorse him, sent out a letter, which she obviously had to do, but she was really twisting arms for this. And it was a lot of capital that she spent and it didn't work. He was beaten rather handily by Maryland's Steny Hoyer, with whom Pelosi has had kind of a rivalry. They're actually both from Maryland originally. And there's some thought that this is going to hurt her down the line, that she really had made it very public that she wanted Murtha, that she got Hoyer. But frankly, this has happened before, and probably it won't - after some months I think everyone will forget about it.

SIMON: For all the renewed pledges of bipartisanship, is there much in the record of these new old leaders to suggest that there will be more bipartisanship?

ROVNER: It's really hard to say. I think we're talking about 2008 now. Everybody's looking towards the presidential elections. The parties have changed a little bit. You've lost a lot of Republican moderates, particularly in the House. So the House is going to tack a little bit to the right. Interesting - so are the Democrats going to tack a little bit to the right because a lot of their new members are more conservative, who've beaten some of these Republican moderates. So that might have a tendency to bring them together. So we'll have to wait and see.

SIMON: Thanks very much. NPR's Julie Rovner.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

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