Junior Democrats in Senate seek to change the way chamber does business

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 12:34 AM

Senate Democrats are expected to elect the same party veterans as their leaders when they return to work this week, but a new class of junior lawmakers is exerting its influence by challenging the chamber's sacred traditions and the partisan, top-down governing style that has marked the past two years.

The young Democrats, many of whom will be on the ballot in 2012, reject the view that the Senate must move at a glacial pace, that only its most senior members get to determine the policy agenda, and that bipartisanship has become the purview of the naive and nostalgic.

"In the last election, voters said, 'Please work together.' I think they're going to move next to profanities," said Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.), a member of the Class of 2008.

Upstarts such as Udall, his cousin Tom Udall (N.M.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Mark Warner (Va.) are expected to wage a fresh campaign to change Senate operating procedures and give first-term lawmakers a greater say over Democratic strategy and how the party communicates with voters.

To amplify the voice of Democratic freshmen, Senate leaders are considering elevating at least one newcomer to senior ranks. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) asked Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), who survived a bruising 2010 challenge, to lead the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2012 campaign cycle. That would have given Bennet a seat at leadership meetings - along with responsibility for a potentially brutal election cycle, with 23 incumbent Democrats on the ballot, compared with 10 Republicans. But Bennet, who has three young children, turned down the job.

A top goal for '06 and '08 Democrats is to change Senate rules that allow a single member of the minority party to prevent legislation from advancing. They want the Senate to take a more entrepreneurial approach to crafting bills, rather than falling back on the same veteran chairmen and their pet policy prescriptions. And they are unwilling to write off Republicans, viewing the opposition as the linchpin to advancing Democratic goals.

"The people of this country want more bipartisanship. They want the government to run better. They want us to help the private sector create jobs. That was the message out of the election, and we'd better heed it," said Klobuchar, a member of the Class of 2006.

Democrats have convened just once as a group - by conference call on Nov. 3 - since losing six Senate seats on Election Day. They are scheduled to hold an extended meeting Tuesday to sort out their priorities for the next month and begin discussing strategy for the 112th Congress.

Underscoring the disparity of views, some Democrats are eager to use the lame-duck session that starts this week to pass as many bills as possible while the party still controls both chambers of Congress. The session is expected include a resolution to fund the federal government through next year, a defense authorization bill that includes a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," and an extension of income tax cuts that are scheduled to expire Dec. 31.

Others, including many of the new senators, want to limit the list to essential bills, such as a tax-cut extension, and start fresh in January with a new agenda that focuses squarely on deficit reduction, job creation and other voter concerns.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have continued to communicate in smaller groups. While the presumption is that Reid and deputies Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) will keep their top posts in leadership elections set for Tuesday, they will be expected to adopt a new posture going forward, one that is more inclusive of different views and less tolerant of some Senate traditions.

One question is the future of the filibuster. Newcomer Democrats first revolted over the procedural tactic last year, when Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) objected to the advancement of an unemployment benefits extension and was able, for a short time, to sustain his blockade without appearing on the Senate floor.

A proposal by Tom Udall would grant the Senate majority party the option of changing any procedural rule, including the filibuster, by a simple majority vote at the beginning of each Congress. A milder version advanced by Mark Udall and congressional scholar Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute would restrict the use of the filibuster by the minority party, while limiting the majority's control over minority amendments.

Reid told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow in late October that he would seek changes to the filibuster rule, but Durbin said in an interview last week: "We have not decided what to do. I think we all hope everyone agrees that we have wasted a lot of time in the Senate. Many of us are impatient. We didn't run for this job to sit in our offices and watch the clerk call the roll. But what will our Republican colleagues join us in doing?"

The GOP response has been cool, but not uniformly so. Sen.-elect Dan Coats of Indiana, who served in the chamber during the 1990s, told Fox News on Nov. 6 that the filibuster "is a barrier."

"At the very least, we need to remove the 60-vote rule for bringing a bill to the floor and actually debating it and voting on it," Coats said. "The American people deserve that we are transparent with them, that we take one item at a time, that we register our yeas and our nays and be accountable to the American people for what we've done."

New-guard Democrats also prefer a different style to developing policy, one that relies less on the committee process and more on a grass-roots, coalition-building approach. Warner, the former Virginia governor and a Class of 2008 member, proposed a compromise Friday on the expiring tax cuts that would extend rates for middle-income Americans and allow upper-income rates to rise to pre-2001 levels, while giving businesses new tax incentives to hire workers. Warner is a former telecommunications entrepreneur but is not a member of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee.

"I am very hopeful we're going to play a bigger role as this goes forward," said Klobuchar, speaking on behalf of Senate freshmen. "We want to make sure responsibility is shared. People have amazing skills, like Mark Warner on business. . . . Their strengths should be used and used smartly."

Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), who was elected in 2006, said he would seek out Republicans such as Sen.-elect Rob Portman (Ohio) to work on legislation that addresses bipartisan concerns such as energy independence. Cardin and Portman were co-authors in the House of a major 2001 bill overhauling the pension system.

"I really do think that the personal relationships between Democrats and Republicans could help us develop some confidence here," Cardin said. "It's important that our caucus operate in the realities of this election and deal with some of the challenges we face in a different way."

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