WASHINGTON — Democrats voted Tuesday to keep the leaders who guided their takeover of the Senate last week but were sharply divided over whether to give Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi the majority leader she wants in the House.
Former Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott, meanwhile, opened a bid to return to the Senate’s Republican leadership after being ousted in 2002 for remarks interpreted as endorsing segregationist policies of the 1940s.
“Yes, I am,” the Mississippian said Tuesday when asked if he was challenging Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander to become minority whip in the newly elected Democratic-majority Congress next year.
Senate Democrats voted Tuesday to make Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada majority leader and Dick Durbin of Illinois No. 2 in the party hierarchy. Both have held the same positions but with “minority” instead of majority in their titles since the 2004 election.
In the House, a bitter battle was under way after Pelosi said she would prefer Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania to be majority leader over her current lieutenant, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Critics accused Pelosi of backpedaling on a pledge to scrub the House of corruption.
Both Murtha and Hoyer claim to have commitments from a majority of Democrats, but the balloting Thursday will be secret and commitments often change.
Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran who favors an immediate drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq, has fought charges for years of using his senior status on the defense appropriations subcommittee to award favors to campaign contributions. He voted against a Democratic package of ethics reforms earlier this year and was touched by but never charged in the Abscam bribery scandal a quarter-century ago.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a Democratic-leaning watchdog group, accused Pelosi of compromising her ethical standards by endorsing Murtha.
“I thought we were above this type of swift-boating attack,” Murtha said in a statement issued by his office, referring to unsubstantiated allegations about John Kerry’s Vietnam War heroism from a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during the 2004 presidential race. “This is not how we restore integrity and civility to the United States Congress.”
Democrats have settled on South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn to succeed Hoyer as the party’s whip, or chief vote-counter, making him the highest-ranking black in the new Congress.
Reid told The Associated Press that a top priority for the remainder of the lame-duck session will be confirming Robert Gates as defense secretary, succeeding Donald H. Rumsfeld. “The sooner we can move it forward the sooner we can get rid of Rumsfeld,” he said.
Rounding out the Democratic leadership roster in the Senate, Charles Schumer of New York will continue as the chairman of the party’s campaign fundraising committee. Schumer also will add “vice chairman” to his title, making him No. 3 in the leadership and a chief strategist.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington will serve as conference secretary; Debbie Stabenow of Michigan will chair the steering committee, and Byron Dorgan of South Dakota will serve as chairman of the research-focused policy committee.
Alexander has been campaigning 18 months for the Senate GOP whip’s job. He claimed commitments of support from more than a majority of the GOP caucus. “We need some new faces and some fresh themes,” Alexander told reporters.
Lott is supported in his comeback bid by Arizona Sen. John McCain.
After Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the current GOP whip, was defeated last week for re-election, Lott cast himself as the more-experienced candidate to hold the GOP’s No. 2 post behind Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell is unopposed for minority leader, replacing retiring Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee.
Alexander is no newcomer to the art of counting votes among finicky colleagues — any one of whom can use Senate procedure to hold up business or kill legislation. A former governor and Cabinet secretary, he is casting himself as a morale-booster for a demoralized Republican caucus.
“He’s a quieter, lower-key person,” than Lott, said Tom Ingram, Alexander’s chief of staff. “He’s plenty tough enough to go toe-to-toe with the opposition every day. But (he’ll) do it in a way that’s constructive, not destructive.”
House Republicans are scheduled to choose their new leaders Friday. There is a three-way race among John Boehner of Ohio, Mike Pence of Indiana and Joe Barton of Texas for minority leader, and a conservative challenge by Arizona Rep. John Shadegg for the GOP whip’s post now help by Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri.
Senate Democrats also filled some administrative posts for when the new Congress convenes. The new sergeant-at-arms will be Terrance Gainer, who was ousted earlier this year as chief of the U.S. Capitol Police after questions were raised about him hiring is son-in-law as a police officer.