Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Senators from both parties will exercise an important private tradition with major future lawmaking implications when Congress returns for a lame duck session next week — the selection of their respective leaders for the 109th Congress.

Unlike the public legislative process, broadcast on C-SPAN and covered by the media, congressional leadership elections are usually shrouded in mystery, conducted in private with secret ballots. This year’s Democratic choices could be an early signal of their political response to their recent election losses. Yet these leadership races say even more about continuing political realignment and the effects of this transformation on the internal politics of the Senate.

Republicans will gather to nominate and then cast secret ballots for their leaders in the ornate Old Senate Chamber on the first floor of the Capitol. Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will be nominated and run unopposed for the two top Republican positions.

Democrats will convene in the haunts of one their former giants, a place rich with more modern history and where they meet for their weekly caucus lunches, the LBJ Room on the second floor of the Capitol.

Democrats will choose both a new leader and assistant leader (also know as whip an old English term referring to the person responsible for keeping the hounds in line during a fox hunt) due to the defeat of current Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Democrats will elevate their current assistant leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, to Daschle’s post without any opposition, leaving the whip position vacant. An second-term Democratic senator from Illinois, Richard Durbin, will win that position, also unopposed.

Unlike the Republicans, where Messrs. Frist and McConnell are being re-elected to their current posts, the lack of a scramble for the two top open Democratic leadership positions is an interesting development — the congressional equivalent of the dog that didn’t bark. Normally, openings for these posts set off vigorous competition among various ideological or regional factions in the caucus. Maine Sen. George Mitchell won the Democratic leader post after a three-way contest. When he retired in 1994, Democrats again had a spirited contest for the top spot (Mr. Daschle beat Connecticut Chris Dodd by one vote). In 1985 Bob Dole of Kansas narrowly defeated Ted Stevens of Alaska on the 4th ballot, culminating a spirited contest among five Republicans to replace Howard Baker.

Democratic Byron Dorgan of North Dakota tested the waters to run for the whip post, but also demurred. His situation is instructive. Watching Mr. Daschle lead an increasingly partisan and liberal caucus in Washington, representing a red state where President Bush garnered 60 percent was frustrating — a tension many believe led to his electoral demise. “It hurt his effectiveness at home and in Washington,” a Democratic lobbyist told me.

Mr. Dorgan is in a similar situation. Mr. Bush garnered a higher percentage of support in Mr. Dorgan’s North Dakota (63 percent) than in Mr. Daschle’s South Dakota. Serving as assistant Democratic leader, devising strategies that oppose a president popular in your home state, is an unenviable assignment.

Lack of competition for the two spots is no doubt a tribute to the respect and admiration Messrs. Reid and Durbin have within their own caucus. Mr. Reid, whose state went for Mr. Bush (but cannot be considered solidly red), spends hours on the floor performing thankless tasks, representing the minority by clearing late-night unanimous consent agreements and conferring with the Republicans about scheduling. Mr. Durbin is a feisty partisan with close ties to unions and Illinois machine politics, from his days as an aide in Springfield.

But the continuing political realignment in America is another factor. Democrat senators from outside the blue upper Midwest, Northeast or West Coast now assume leadership positions at their own peril. It also signals the Democrats may move farther left as a response to losing seats. “Instead of choosing a leader like Dorgan from a solid red state, and help the Democrats compete in those areas, they seem to be saying ‘solid red state senators need not apply,’ ” a knowledgeable Hill watcher told me.

It’s clear that the lack of competition for the two top Democratic posts next week signals the congressional Democrats’ first move in post-election strategy and outreach to voters of the solid red states is not on their agenda.

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