Senate Democrats waste no time in gathering to choose majority party leaders

Published 6:26 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Not wasting time, Senate Democrats were caucusing Tuesday to pick their leaders for the next Congress.

Barely a week passed since the midterm elections in which the Democrats wrested Senate control from the Republicans.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada was unchallenged to become the schedule-setting majority leader, succeeding possible presidential candidate Bill Frist, R-Tenn., whose self-imposed two-term limit expires this year.

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The vote-counting Democratic whip is expected to be Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois. Democratic leaders have asked Sen. Charles Schumer of New York to continue as the chairman of the party’s senatorial campaign committee after overseeing last week’s elections.

House Democrats face a less-comfortable choice when they pick their leaders Thursday, now that speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi has rejected her current top lieutenant in favor of longtime confidante John Murtha of Pennsylvania.

Murtha, a blunt Vietnam veteran whose call for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing from Iraq helped rally Democrats for the election, had appeared to be the underdog to Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democrats’ whip.

The politicking over leadership posts happened Monday while GOP leaders opened a lame-duck session in which the outgoing Congress — including defeated Republicans — returned to finish work on the budget, Vietnam trade and the nomination of a defense secretary.

Legislation to normalize trade relations with Hanoi failed to win House passage late Monday, forcing Republicans to try again under different rules before President Bush visits Vietnam later in the week.

In other action, the House passed and sent to Bush a bill that could fine and imprison animal rights advocates who threaten scientists conducting animal research.

The Capitol, meanwhile, buzzed with the energy of House members-to-be and senators-in-waiting attending freshman orientation.

More than 50 incoming House freshmen spent the day in meetings focused not on big legislative items or the Iraq war but rather on office logistics and ethics — a key issue after a season of scandal that had, at least in part, led to the election of the new members.

In the Senate, a 10-person freshman class of eight Democrats, one Republican and Democratic-leaning independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont also began orientation.

Democratic Sen.-elect Jon Tester of Montana looked a little overwhelmed on his first day.

“It hasn’t soaked in yet,” he said. “Maybe it will never soak in.”

The Capitol police weren’t quite ready for Tester, a farmer with a throwback flat top haircut and fingers missing on his left hand from an old accident with a meat grinder. They asked him to empty his pockets for inspection.

“Just like at the airport, you put it all through?” Tester asked.

The officer nodded, then recognized the newcomer and waved him through.