Freshman Senators Settle Into 'The Upper House' In 2006, voters angry about Iraq and frustrated with President George W. Bush sent a new class of senators to Washington. In The Upper House, Terence Samuel profiles these legislators as they come to terms with the grunt work and gridlock of their new jobs.
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Freshman Senators Settle Into 'The Upper House'

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Freshman Senators Settle Into 'The Upper House'

Freshman Senators Settle Into 'The Upper House'

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: Terence Samuel is a veteran Washington journalist who's been shadowing those freshmen senators. His new book is called "The Upper House." In it, Samuel follows a brand-new group of lawmakers elected in part, he says, out of the public frustration over the war in Iraq. They soon discovered the limits of their power.

M: I think the switch in control of the Congress was essentially about Iraq. We watched them try to address that, and the difficulties of working in a body like the Senate with its arcane rules - or some people would say no rules.

: What are some of the personal moments that you saw, where we feel this frustration of the senators suddenly saying, this isn't exactly what I expected, this is going to be a slower process than I ever imagined?

M: Well, these are all very smart people. And so part of what they do is, they try to pick their spots. The four people who were central to the book - Jon Tester of Montana, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Jim Webb of Virginia, and Bob Corker.

: Three Democrats and then, of course, a Republican from Tennessee.

M: And Corker, the one Republican. So, for example, Klobuchar had this one amendment in the energy bill in 2007, and she wanted to establish a carbon registry, which would ask companies to report how much carbon they are releasing into the atmosphere. Well, she ran up against Senator James Inhofe, former chairman of the committee, a Republican from Oklahoma, who just absolutely refused to have it in the bill. There was nothing she could do. She tried to track him down, you know.

: Like, literally running around Senate office buildings and places to find him.

M: Yeah. She said, you know, I've tried to be nice. I've tried to be firm. And in frustration one day, she just went to the floor and expressed her absolute shock that one senator can block this from happening. But she was learning.

: And you made a lot of these trips to follow these senators back home. What did you hear? Were they different people on the floor compared to in those, you know, town hall meetings and parks?

M: Well, what's interesting about doing the freshman class is that they have not yet - what people in the Senate call, they've not yet gone purple, which means going from an ordinary person to going to this kind of grand eminence.

: And that's this inevitable process that happens to these senators over time.

M: Yeah. It's the royal purple because there's always staff around you, people who hand you things when you need it. You walk down the hall and doors open. But there is some grunt work involved in the Senate, and that job essentially falls to the freshman class of the majority.

: Low man or woman on the totem pole.

M: Right. So they spend a lot of time sitting on the chair while, you know, somebody's making a speech about rainwater in their state or cheering on the high school state basketball champs. There's a lot of that.

: You followed this group of freshmen elected in 2006. The only Republican in that group was Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who was once the mayor of Chattanooga. And he told you: You mean, I campaigned 25 months and two days to do this? And he said, about half of what we're doing in the Senate is absolutely useless.

M: Senator Corker, however, as we know, has gone on to something of a reputation as somebody who works across the aisle, and I think that is, in some ways, a reflection of the kind of class he came out of - mostly Democratic, but also very change-oriented. I mean, this was the class that had been charged with changing kind of the dynamics in Washington. And I think he's still, in some ways, reflective of that.

: There's almost a sense in the book that when the Senate is moving very slowly, it is, in theory, at its most successful.

M: Yeah. I mean, in some ways, the Senate was intended to be kind of an obstructionist institution. It was a reflection of the mistrust that the founders had in how well we will govern ourselves. But in some ways, I think the people who succeed are people who learn to live and thrive in that sense of frustration. It's in some ways where gridlock kind of feels like success.

: Terry, always good to talk to you. Thank you.

M: Thanks for having me. Enjoyed it.

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