Up for Grabs, the Coolest Seat in the Senate

By Mary Ann Akers And Paul Kane
Thursday, November 6, 2008

Contenders or pretenders, the list of potential candidates for President-elect Barack Obama's soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat stretches from Chicago to Springfield and back again.

All are Democrats. All would love the chance to follow Obama as the junior senator from Illinois in a state where Republicans have a long losing streak in major statewide contests. The appointment lasts the final two years of Obama's term.

Among them are at least two members of Congress and Obama campaign co-chairs: Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the South Side son of a famous political father, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an early Obama supporter from progressive Evanston.

Other names mentioned in Illinois political circles are Obama family confidante Valerie Jarrett, a Chicago businesswoman; state Senate President Emil Jones Jr., an Obama mentor in the mid-1990s; and Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a rising star and likely candidate for governor in 2010.

Tammy Duckworth, the Illinois director of veterans affairs, is high on everyone's list.

An Iraq war veteran who lost most of both legs after her helicopter was shot down, Duckworth was recruited for a losing 2006 House race by Sen. Richard Durbin and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the prospective White House chief of staff. Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, guided her campaign and is a fan.

The decision lies with Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose political decisions are famously unpredictable. He told reporters yesterday that he is unlikely to choose himself, although that is permissible.

"The search begins today," Blagojevich said in announcing that a new committee would consider potential picks. He said he aims to make a decision by Jan. 1.

Day of Reckoning

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) is about to learn the price of his open support for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his stark criticism of Obama during the campaign.

Lieberman is scheduled to meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) by the end of this week to discuss his future as an independent who caucuses with Democrats, aides said. It will be a face-to-face sit-down, but the precise timing and location are still undisclosed, perhaps out of senatorial deference to Lieberman.

Reid, who said publicly for most of the spring and summer that it was fine for Lieberman to endorse McCain, became angry with his colleague when he delivered a blistering speech at the Republican National Convention that included criticism of Obama's readiness to be president.

One possible penalty would be to strip Lieberman of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which many Democrats would support but some would consider light punishment. Another option is to expel him from the caucus by stripping him of all committee assignments, a move that would force Lieberman to caucus with Republicans if he wants to take part in committee deliberations.

Marshall Wittmann, Lieberman's spokesman, declined to comment on the pending meeting.

Any action Reid takes would have to be ratified by the Democratic caucus, which will meet Nov. 18 to formally elect its leadership for the 111th Congress and take care of other issues. The decreasing chances that Democrats could achieve their goal of a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats, for which they'd need Lieberman, may make it easier to mete out more severe punishment to him.

Meet the Freshmen

There are plenty of new faces headed for the Capitol next year: more than 30 freshman House members and at least five new senators. Some things you might not know about the people coming to Congress:

· So much for the adage about having no heart if you're a conservative in college and no brain if you're a liberal at 40. Rep.-elect Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) was president of the College Republicans at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. He also served in the Nixon White House. He ousted incumbent Bill Sali (R).

· Only one member of the 111th Congress can boast of attending junior high school with Madonna. Representative-elect Gary Peters (D-Mich.) says he attended West Junior High School in Rochester, Mich., with the future pop star. He didn't know her much, he told us, just passed her in the hallways. Then he went on to Rochester High and she went to rival Adams High.

We caught up with Peters at an event with 12th-graders at Adams, where he tried to break the ice by telling them he knew their most famous alumna. So much for that. The students grilled Peters with questions about his positions on offshore drilling, taxes and health care. Not a single question about the Material Girl.

· Peters also has the distinction of being the only newcomer who can claim to have cheated death on Election Day. Dr. Death, that is. Not only did he defeat incumbent Joe Knollenberg (R), but Peters had to contend with assisted suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian, who collected 2.6 percent of the vote in his race.

· As of yesterday afternoon, House Democrats had picked up 23 seats held by Republicans and had lost four of their own. How's this for geographical balance? Of the pickups, six new Democrats hail from the Northeast, five from the Midwest, six from the South and six from states west of the Rocky Mountains.

The One That Got Away

Luckily for Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), his constituents weren't too offended. The folks he labeled "redneck" and "racist" wound up reelecting him by an overwhelming margin -- 58 percent to 42 percent -- despite indications he was in trouble.

Murtha, chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, coasted all summer, giving away his money to other House candidates who he thought needed it more. Then one day, after he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that "Western Pennsylvania is a racist area," a poll showed that he actually might lose to his GOP challenger, retired Army Lt. Col. William Russell.

That's when an emergency rescue plan was formed. Operation Save Jack involved veteran fundraiser Susan O'Neill (daughter of the late Speaker Tip O'Neill), campaign manager Abe Dyk and uber Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta, who ran John Kerry's Pennsylvania campaign in 2004 and Bill Clinton's in 1992 and 1996.

Clinton came to Murtha's Johnstown district twice in about 10 days, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) voiced robo-calls. Podesta parachuted in from Brazil, where he and his wife, Heather, also a lobbyist, were vacationing.

A frenetic campaign of door-knocking, phone-calling and fundraising ensued. Within about 10 days, Murtha raised more than $1 million. The politically ambidextrous gun-loving hero to antiwar liberals received about $5,000 from the National Rifle Association's PAC and more than $150,000 from MoveOn.org. It was enough to help pay for four TV spots that ran during Monday night's Steelers game against the Redskins.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, spent close to $600,000 to defeat Murtha while cutting off funding for others, including now-defeated Reps. Robin Hayes of North Carolina and Joe Knollenberg of Michigan.

But that turned out to be a waste of money.

Staff writer Peter Slevin contributed to this column.

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