Midterms bring changes to Senate

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WASHINGTON – With the late concession of Republicans Conrad Burns in Montana and George Allen in Virginia, voters gave Democrats a Senate majority to go with the larger one captured in the House of Representatives – a crucial edge, as it means among other things that Democratic proposals coming over from the House will get a serious hearing once they reach the Senate. (Bills must pass both chambers in identical form before they can be enacted as law.) That was seldom the case with Democratic initiatives during the Republican-majority Congress.

But it is also a small edge: 51 to 49 by the most realistic definition. Two candidates elected on the Independent ticket, self-avowed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (a Democrat before he lost the Democratic primary election), will caucus with Democrats and are expected, for the most part, to vote with the party.

A majority so slim will have difficulty enacting a legislative agenda. But majority control of a chamber shifts the balance of power regardless. Majority party members chair committees; and committee chairmen decide which bills will advance and which will never be heard from again. When a bill does advance to a committee vote, they get the final say on its provisions. Majority party committee members get the lion’s share of staffing allocations from the federal budget, and committee chairs have subpoena power in keeping with the congressional oversight role.

Having shown its muscle by making the difference for individual candidates in previous elections, Indian country played a decisive role in delivering the Senate to Democrats on Nov. 7. As in the House, and as with almost any national election, most Senate seats were safe for the incumbent. So Democrats went into Election Day having to hold two contested seats, while winning at least six of seven seats at risk for Republicans, in order to achieve a majority in the Senate.

They did exactly that, holding their own in Maryland and New Jersey, losing Tennessee to a Republican but prevailing with their candidates in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and – in doubt all night – Missouri.

That left Virginia and Montana still in the doubtful column come Nov. 8. In Virginia, Allen was the author of his own undoing; voters never let him recover from casting a racial slur.

In Montana, Burns was also his own worst opponent. But he had others, Indians foremost. As detailed by the National Congress of American Indians, counties comprised of reservations voted heavily for Democratic challenger Jon Tester. With a couple of exceptions, they were the only Democratic strongholds among the state’s counties. Among the seven tribes in the state, five voted heavily for Tester, according to county totals. An Independent Party candidate fared well on the other two reservations.

Given a margin of approximately 3,000 votes, tribes made the difference for Tester.

Because of that difference, the lineup of committee chairmen will look much different in the Senate than it did under Republicans. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii at Commerce, Science and Transportation; Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico at Energy and Natural Resources; Daniel Akaka of Hawaii at Veterans’ Affairs; Barbara Boxer of California at Environment and Public Works; Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts at Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; North Dakotans Kent Conrad at Budget and Byron Dorgan at Indian Affairs – all are friends or champions of Native America generally, notwithstanding the occasional cross-purposes that go with the give-and-take of politics.

Many Indian-specific issues will get their attention, of course. But in particular, Bingaman may be asked to step up for tribes should a study of tribal rights of way, authorized by Section 1813 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, yield recommendations that undermine tribal consent in rights of way decisions. “I think Section 1813 would have less of a chance with Bingaman than with Domenici,” said Virginia “Ginny” Boylan, a lawyer and lobbyist on the issue with the former firm of Gardner Carton and Douglas in Washington (it merged as of Nov. 13 with Drinker Biddle and Reath. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., was the Energy and Natural Resources chairman under a Republican majority).

Kennedy, a known progressive on public health policy, is apt to take a role in moving reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which has stalled under complex circumstances in the HELP committee this year (a joint meeting of HELP and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was unexpectedly scheduled for Nov. 14 and then postponed, signaling a “Hail Mary” effort to pass the reauthorization in the current lame duck session of Congress). Boxer has regularly taken the lead in turning back Republican efforts to authorize exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Dorgan has been a constant champion of Indian country during his recent years as ranking Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, a role he can be counted on to continue and expand if he ends up chairing the committee under a Democratic majority. Education, health care and economic development have provided his most impassioned themes, among the many other issues that have come before the committee. Among Dorgan’s other posts is that of chairman of the Democratic Caucus’ policy committee, bound to be more visible in the upcoming 110th Congress.

Conrad’s presence in Indian affairs has been more subdued, but as the Budget Committee chairman he can be expected to raise the profile of his campaign against a deficit budget that would have to be balanced with cutbacks in domestic discretionary programs. Federal funding for many Indian programs comes from the dwindling discretionary percentage of the budget, and Conrad has sounded the warning to Indian country on an annual basis since 2004, when he came before an NCAI conference to characterize presidential priorities and their supporting economic assumptions as “make-believe budgeting.”