WASHINGTON—With just three Republicans among the 12 new lawmakers joining the U.S. Senate, Democrats have expanded their control of what used to be called the world’s greatest deliberative body.
The 53 to 47 seat majority Democrats enjoyed the last two years will now be a 55 to 45 advantage—counting two left-leaning independents likely to caucus with Democrats.
That is not enough for Democrats to command a 60-vote, filibuster-proof hold over the Senate. And the five-vote gap means that Republicans cannot be ignored. But not being ignored falls short of the GOP’s once-feasible goal of retaking the Senate chamber in 2012. The party’s inability to pick up seats was one more disappointment in a mostly losing election.
Among the new faces joining the 88 returning senators will be the nation’s first Buddhist senator (Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono) and the nation’s first openly gay senator (Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin). Both come from the House of Representatives side of the Capitol along with six other freshman senators.
Others who will just have to walk across the Capitol Rotunda to find their new offices include Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, a House budget hawk and opponent of earmarks.
Among the six senators who are new to Congress, and another fiscal conservative, will be Texas Republican Ted Cruz. The first Hispanic senator from the Lone Star State, Cruz, 41, is the Tea Party’s biggest 2012 election success.
Cruz has never held elective office but campaigned using the story of his father, who fled Cuba in the 1950s as a teenager with $100 sewn into his underwear. Once in America, his father put himself through the University of Texas while earning 50 cents an hour washing dishes. It’s an American Dream tale enhanced by Cruz’s own experience as a champion debater at Princeton.
This will not be Cruz’s first Washington job. The Harvard Law graduate clerked for former Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist and logged time in former President George W. Bush’s administration at both the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission. His 2003 return to Texas as the state’s solicitor general did not keep him away from the capital: He argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including defending the display of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol.
Cruz already has assumed the role of spokesman for Capitol Hill’s freshmen Republicans, pledging on Election Day, “I will spend every waking moment to lead the fight to stop” President Obama’s big-government policies.
As a new lawmaker belonging to the party that doesn’t control the Senate or the White House, Cruz will face roadblocks. Some will come from new Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The Harvard Law professor ousted Republican Sen. Scott Brown, taking back the seat of the late Ted Kennedy. Warren, 63, also honed her debating chops (and earned a college scholarship) as a high-school debater in Oklahoma City. And like Cruz, her campaign narrative includes a father story.
Warren says her father’s heart attack and demotion at work in the early 1960s shattered the family’s middle class comforts. The memory of those economic struggles led Warren to develop a specialty in bankruptcy cases after earning her law degree from Rutgers.
Once a registered Republican, Warren has become one of Wall Street’s fiercest critics. Her outspokenness attracted the attention of Democrats who tapped her in 2008 to chair the congressional oversight panel for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. She later helped establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for the Obama administration. But Senate Republicans barred her from becoming the bureau’s first director. She will soon be a colleague to many of those who voted against her appointment.
Warren is one of a record 20 women serving in the Senate next year. Joining her will be newcomers Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, and Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat.
Fischer, 61, rode a Sarah Palin endorsement to upset both an establishment candidate and a Tea Party–backed candidate in the state’s GOP primary.
She left the University of Nebraska before graduating to marry a rancher in 1972. She raised three sons and worked on the northern Nebraska ranch before earning a degree in education in 1988. Two years later she won a seat on the local high-school board of education, and in 2004 she began an eight-year stint as a state senator. The pro-life Presbyterian’s first run at statewide office gives Republicans a seat that belonged to retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson.
Heitkamp’s victory in North Dakota prevented Republicans from picking up another Senate seat being vacated by a retiring Democrat. North Dakota has supported Republicans for president in every election since 1968. But Heitkamp, 57, kept the Senate seat in Democrats’ hands thanks to high likeability ratings and a willingness to criticize President Obama on the campaign trail. She stayed away from the Democratic National Convention, said the party’s platform didn’t represent her, and filmed commercials where she said “they don’t know how to get along anymore” in Washington. The former state tax commissioner and state attorney general lost a bid for governor in 2000, and was diagnosed with breast cancer during that campaign. Despite cultivating an independent image, Heitkamp, who grew up in a town near the Minnesota border that had a population of 64 in 2010, told voters she supports most of Obamacare.
Another cancer survivor is former Maine Gov. Angus King, 68, who was elected governor as an independent in 1994. He won his second term by a 40-point margin in a three-way race. King, a graduate of Dartmouth and the University of Virginia School of Law, hasn’t said which party he will caucus with in Washington. But the former Democrat supported Obama for president—and Democrats in Congress did not campaign for King’s Democratic opponent.
King overcame melanoma at age 29, hosted a popular Maine public television program for nearly two decades, and sold an alternative energy company for $20 million in 1994. A wind energy company King formed in 2007 received a $102 million Energy Department loan from the same federal program that financed the bankrupt solar company Solyndra. King, who as governor once celebrated the signing of an environmental law by jumping into a river fully clothed, sold off his share of the wind company in March.
One new senator who did not shy away from his support of Obama during the campaign was former Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine. Growing up in Kansas, Kaine helped his father at his metalworking shop. But Kaine settled in Virginia after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1983. A civil rights lawyer who has never lost an election, Kaine, 54, has climbed the political ladder: Richmond city council, Richmond mayor, and lieutenant governor before being elected Virginia’s governor in 2005. Kaine, who took a break from law school to serve at a Jesuit mission in Honduras, attends a predominantly black inner-city Catholic church in Richmond. He sang in the choir there for 14 years. But Kaine criticized a new Virginia law imposing hospital building standards on abortion clinics and has said he would not limit the Roe v. Wade decision that forced states to legalize abortion.