Republican Leaders Have Work Cut Out For Them

Republicans will have an even smaller minority in the next Congress, after losing at least 20 seats in the House and seven in the Senate. This week, they've been picking new leaders, and the results are in.

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Come the start of the year, the ranks of the unemployed will include Republican members of the House and Senate who lost their jobs in the election. The remaining Republicans are deciding what to do now. They've been choosing new leaders and keeping a few old ones as they struggle to define the loyal opposition. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: There's nothing quite like losing elections to prompt a bit of soul searching in the party ranks.

Representative MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): This is a time of renewal and re-grounding for Republicans on Capitol Hill.

ELLIOTT: That's Indiana Congressman Mike Pence after being elected yesterday as chairman of the House Republican Conference. He's part of a slate of new leaders who come from the party's conservative wing. Pence says Republicans must get back to their core principals.

Representative PENCE: That's a commitment to a strong defense, to limited government, and to defending traditional moral values. While there certainly are differences among members on the margins of those issues, I think that the principles that minted our majority in 1994, the principles that carried Ronald Reagan to office in 1980, still represent the governing majority of the United States of America.

ELLIOTT: Capitol Hill Republicans are holding onto that belief, even as they face the reality of an emboldened majority and a Democrat in the White House. Eric Cantor of Virginia is the new minority whip.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): We are going to serve as the honest opposition to the administration of the president-elect. We will serve as a check and a balance to the power of President-elect Obama and Speaker Pelosi.

ELLIOTT: This week's lame-duck session on a Democratic plan to rescue struggling U.S. automakers has provided a platform for that voice, as most Republicans have lined up against the auto bailout. House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): Our opposition is rooted in trying to protect the American taxpayer.

ELLIOTT: Despite the election losses, Republicans re-elected Boehner of Ohio for a second term as their leader. He fended off a challenge from conservative Dan Lungren of California. Boehner promised to work to win back the trust of Americans.

Representative BOEHNER: And our job as a party is to find solutions, solutions that are built on our principles as a political party, the two foundations of freedom and security.

ELLIOTT: Boehner and others believe House Republicans struck the right cord this summer with their push to open up U.S. waters to offshore oil and gas drilling, and plan to build on that message. Packaging the GOP message and finding candidates to carry it will be the job of Texas Congressman Pete Sessions, who replaces Oklahoma's Tom Cole as chairman of the Republican's Campaign Committee.

Representative PETE SESSIONS (Republican, Texas): We have gotten away from people connecting, a growing economy, stability at home, and how economic policies all work together. We're going to have to go back and explain that having government programs to bailouts is not our idea of a solvent, secure economy.

ELLIOTT: With fewer moderates left in the House GOP, the conservative right wing of the party will carry more weight. Whip Eric Cantor says that shouldn't matter.

Representative CANTOR: It's not about right or center. It's not about center or left. It's not about conservative or liberal. This is about delivering upon the promises that people expect its government to deliver on. It's about producing a government that works for the people again and not the other way around.

ELLIOTT: Republicans in the Senate are also talking about a return to core values. Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): We don't need new principles. We don't need to hire a PR firm. We've had a failure of imagination on the Republican side. We need to turn the principles we believe in into solutions that affect Americans on an everyday basis - on electric prices, on health insurance, on helping balance the family budget, keeping spending under control. We know how to do that. We will do that. And we're looking forward to it.

ELLIOTT: Amid the policy talk, the new head of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, John Cornyn of Texas, has a more pragmatic take.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): The right policies and the right message are very, very important, but they don't count for much unless you can win elections.

ELLIOTT: For Cornyn, the path back to the majority starts in 2010. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.

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Waxman, Dingell Face Off Over Key House Panel

On Thursday, Democrats in the House of Representatives will cast a key vote deciding whom they want to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee. The face-off is a battle between two legislative titans in Congress: current Chairman John Dingell, from Michigan, and California Rep. Henry Waxman.

Eighty-two year-old Dingell is a legendary, and many would say feared, figure on Capitol Hill. His Detroit-area district first elected him in 1955, before many current members of Congress were born. He helped create Medicare in the 1960s and is known for his staunch defense of the auto industry, fighting against tougher clean air standards and higher mileage requirements for cars. Recently, Dingell has focused on climate change.

"There's the fact that greenhouse gases are produced by almost every single human activity," Dingell told NPR last year. "And so what we're trying to do is to come forward with legislation, as speedily as we can, which will see to it that the concerns and the needs of every part of this country are dealt with."

The Energy and Commerce Committee will have a major role in shaping health care, energy and climate change legislation — three of President-elect Obama's top priorities.

But 69-year-old Waxman, who has represented part of Los Angeles since the Watergate era in 1974, is hoping to wrest the chairmanship from Dingell. His California colleague, Democrat George Miller, says Waxman is a leader on issues such as health care, energy, and food and drug legislation.

"All [Waxman's accomplishments] have led to a better life for the American people, and I think he's the best opportunity to take us to the future in energy, where this country has got some very serious decisions," Miller says.

Waxman has been a legislative activist who has fought to regulate secondhand smoke, as well as expand the Clean Air Act and Medicaid coverage. He's also been an aggressive opponent of the Bush administration and has conducted hearings into Iraq war contractors, lead content in toys and, last month, the financial meltdown.

"Over and over again, ideology trumped governance," Waxman said of the Bush administration's financial policies. "Our regulators became enablers rather than enforcers. Their trust in the wisdom of the markets was infinite."

Waxman surprised many in Congress when, shortly after Election Day, he announced his challenge of Dingell. Committee chairmanships are usually determined by seniority.

But not always. Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public policy at Princeton University, says this is not merely a turf war.

"This, first, is a battle over the role of the environment in the Democratic agenda," Zelizer says.

"There's a lot of Democrats who want the party to finally move forward on this issue, and Dingell has been one of the chief opponents of environmental measures in the Democratic Party."

Dingell and Waxman have each been wooing party members, contributing money to their campaigns and making their respective cases in private and public. Leading the charge for Dingell is Pennsylvania Democrat Mike Doyle, who says Dingell's name is on every major piece of environmental legislation, and that he has a climate change bill at the ready.

"We'd be taking a step backwards changing leadership right now," Doyle says. "We're ready to move. We have prepared this climate change legislation so that when we got a new president, we could go full steam ahead."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has remained publicly neutral, but her coolness toward Dingell is well-known. Wednesday, in what may be a harbinger, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee endorsed Waxman in a secret vote. But it will be the entire Democratic caucus that determines who leads Energy and Commerce in another secret vote — Thursday.

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