Partisan shift impacts Mississippi congressional delegation

Published 10:47 pm Saturday, November 11, 2006

As Democrats take over the majority from Republicans on Capitol Hill, Rep. Bennie Thompson is poised make a bigger leap in power than any other member of the Mississippi congressional delegation.

Fellow Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor hopes to wield more influence over shipbuilding contracts that could help his south Mississippi district and bolster the strength of the Navy fleet.

Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, meanwhile, will relinquish one of the most coveted positions in Washington — the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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Thompson, who has served in Congress since 1993, was easily re-elected this past week. All four of Mississippi’s U.S. House members and Republican Sen. Trent Lott all brushed aside challengers who raised little campaign cash for the midterm elections.

Thompson is currently the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, which was established in 2002 to oversee the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and to try to protect against acts of terrorism.

With his party taking control, Thompson, 58, is slated to become the committee chairman.

“That could bring in contracts for the state,” said political science professor Steve Rozman, director of Tougaloo College Center for Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility.

Taylor, 53, is a maverick Democrat who sometimes bucks his party leadership on issues such as abortion. He has been in the House since 1989 and is now the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services subcommittee that oversees authorization of military shipbuilding.

Taylor is in line to become the subcommittee’s chairman and said he wants to increase the number of ships and submarines in the Navy’s fleet from the current 285 to about 350.

Taylor said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., who has been the subcommittee chairman, “has been a great friend and a great partner.”

“But I think I could do a little better since I am from shipbuilding country,” Taylor said.

Northrop Grumman Ship Systems’ Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula is the largest private employer in Mississippi.

Analysts say Cochran has been instrumental in getting Mississippi billions of federal dollars to help the state’s long recovery from Hurricane Katrina. The monster storm blew ashore on Aug. 29, 2005 — about nine months after Cochran became chairman of the committee that shapes federal spending.

Cochran, 68, did not have to seek re-election this year because he still has two years left in his current six-year term. He was first elected to the Senate in 1978, after six years in the House. Cochran remains the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee.

Lott, 65, was first elected to the Senate in 1988 after 16 years in the House. On election night last week, Lott said he was mulling a run for Senate GOP whip, the party’s second-highest leadership job.

Lott was Senate majority leader from 1996 until June 2001, when Vermont Sen. James Jeffords left the Republican Party to become an independent, tipping control of the Senate to the Democrats. Lott’s title switched to minority leader, and after the GOP fared well in the 2002 elections he was slated to become majority leader again.

Lott stumbled along the way. His praise for retiring 100-year-old, one-time segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond was called racially insensitive by critics. Lott apologized, but still lost traction on the national political scene. He strongly reconnected to voters after losing his beachside home to Hurricane Katrina.

Taylor predicts Cochran and Lott will still be able to push legislation to help the state, even as the GOP becomes the minority party.

“Trent and Thad are still going to be incredibly influential,” Taylor said. “The Senate has always been a much more congenial place. They traditionally have been better to their minority than certainly the (Tom) DeLay crowd treated the minority in the House.”

DeLay, a staunchly conservative Texas Republican who had been the House majority leader, resigned from Congress in June amid a fundraising scandal.

Rozman, the Tougaloo political scientist, said it will be interesting to watch the two parties adjust to the new balance of power.

“Republicans have shut out the Democrats. They play some rough ball,” Rozman said. “I don’t think that’s going to be forgotten.”

On the other hand, he said, Democrats are “going to have to get along with this president.”

Thompson said the midterm elections showed Americans’ dissatisfaction with some of President Bush’s policies.

“We get the message from the public that the Iraq war in the present direction does not bode well with the majority of the citizens in the country and they want something more than the president has put on the table,” Thompson said.

The day after the election, the president announced the planned resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He’s expected to leave the job after Bush’s nominee, Robert Gates, is confirmed by the Senate.

Taylor has been a harsh critic of Rumsfeld’s handling of the Iraq war, and he cheered the resignation.

“Don’t let the screen door hit you on the rear end,” he said of Rumsfeld. “It’s about six years too late.”

Mississippi’s two Republican House members — Roger Wicker and Chip Pickering — will serve in the minority party for the first time in their congressional careers. Wicker was first elected in 1994, the year Republicans swept control of the House and Senate. Pickering came along two years later.

Wicker, 55, said he would continue to focus on creating jobs and improving education and transportation for his north Mississippi district.

“Clearly, the economy is strong and moving in the right direction and we need to concentrate on keeping taxes low,” Wicker said.

On election night last week, Pickering, 43, said it was “bittersweet” to win another term but see his party slip out of power.

“As we look at races across the country and we see a number of Democrats winning races running as moderate and centrist, I am hopeful that coalitions will develop around security and issues that are relevant — health care, energy, the economy,” said Pickering, who’s currently vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Pickering’s first work on Capitol Hill was as a member of Lott’s staff. Analysts have thought for years that Lott is grooming his protege to move into the Senate. On election night, Lott and Pickering held a victory party together at Jackson’s Hilton hotel.