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Leadership lineup

Politics | Democrats caucus-and have their first turf battle-over key leadership positions

Issue: "Kids' books," Dec. 2, 2006

Democrats flooded into Congress Nov. 7 promising bipartisan action to move the country in a new direction. But swift contention over the party's top leadership positions betrays a pressing need to build consensus within its own ranks first.

Freshly elected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi struggled to mask her disappointment following the rejection of John Murtha for the post of House majority leader-a direct affront to Pelosi in response to her first formal move to set an agenda. Rather than deliver the California congresswoman's endorsed choice, Democratic representatives handed the No. 2 spot to Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Pelosi's most bitter party rival. The 149-86 vote for the more moderate Hoyer suggests division among House Democrats over whether to follow Pelosi's far-left program. It also rebuffs the anti-war calls for immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq that Murtha champions.

Pelosi called the election of Hoyer "stunning" but attempted to minimize her past animosity toward the Maryland congressman: "As we say in church, let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with us."

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Meanwhile in the Senate, allegations of ties to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff sullied the coronation of newly elected majority leader Harry Reid. The Nevada Senator quickly denied charges that he requested $30,000 of campaign contributions from Abramoff's clients. But the mere appearance of such headlines harms Democratic efforts to portray the party as a sanitary replacement for Republicans.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who will serve as majority whip when the 110th Congress convenes in January, has also struggled to keep his name clean from controversy. A polarizing figure with little bipartisan appeal, Durbin has compared U.S. interrogation techniques of terrorists to those used in Nazi Germany and Soviet gulags-this from a politician with a 100 percent rating from the pro-abortion group NARAL.

Senate Republicans matched such leadership appointments with a master of special-interest fundraising in Mitch McConnell and a once-disgraced political wash-up in Trent Lott. McConnell, a 22-year veteran from Kentucky, faced no opposition as the heir apparent to former party leader Bill Frist, who did not seek reelection. But Lott's rise to the role of minority whip raised eyebrows on both sides of the aisle. The Mississippi senator was ousted from Republican leadership in 2002 after speaking favorably of Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential campaign.

Some Republicans hailed Lott's re-ascension as a grand tale of political redemption. Others maligned it as a GOP failure to respond to an electorate clamoring for new leadership.

House Republicans avoided any such internal controversy with the selections of John Boehner as minority leader and Roy Blunt as minority whip. The Midwestern congressmen were predictable choices given House Speaker Denny Hastert's announcement that he would not seek the party's top spot after failing to properly police the sexual misconduct of former Florida Rep. Mark Foley.

The new GOP leadership in both houses faces an uphill climb to restore public confidence in the party before the 2008 presidential race. A sizable influx of "Blue Dog" Democrats, evidenced by the selection of Hoyer over Murtha, provides some hope for building bipartisan majorities around conservative solutions to problems like deficit spending and illegal immigration.

But such moderate voices are woefully underrepresented among Democrats' choices to chair critical committees-a fact that could roadblock the legislature for the next two years with rampant hearings and investigations into past Republican improprieties. The following is a brief look at some of the most powerful new committee leaders:

House committee chairmen

Armed Services: A social conservative who voted for the Iraq war, Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton has nonetheless vowed to investigate possible defense contract abuses and Bush administration mistakes. He has also called for significant troop redeployment out of Iraq.

Energy and Commerce: During his previous 15-year tenure as chairman, Michigan Rep. John Dingell orchestrated wide-ranging governmental investigations. The partisan bulldog will now take aim at oil subsidies and Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force meetings.

Financial Services: Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank has promised to address income inequality, handing shareholders more authority to limit executive salaries. He also intends to allocate more government subsidies for affordable housing.

Government Reform: Having once begged for congressional investigations into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and possible intelligence manipulation leading up to the Iraq war, California Rep. Henry Waxman now holds the power to proceed. The fierce liberal campaigner may also probe no-bid contracts in Iraq for any GOP misconduct.

Judiciary: The founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Michigan Rep. John Conyers is among the strongest advocates for presidential impeachment. The far-left Democrat also supports a bill that would ban governmental criticism of Islam.

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