Members of Congress keep old jobs, face new reality

WASHINGTON–For Connecticut’s Democratic congressional delegation, the election celebrations are over, and a stark new reality is beginning to set in.

Yes, the state’s five Democratic U.S. House members all dodged the Republican wave that swept the rest of the country. But now they have to adjust to a dramatically reconfigured political landscape, one in which their legislative power is sapped and their agenda is upended.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” said 4th District Rep. Jim Himes, who is savoring his win over Republican Dan Debicella, while also sifting through the implications of life in the minority party.

“I’ve never been in the minority before, and I had only been in the majority for 22 months,” said Himes, who was first elected in 2008. “It’s all new to me.”

In the aftermath of the massive Democratic losses–now tallied at 60 seats and still counting–some lawmakers weren’t quite ready to talk about what’s next.

“Right now, he’d like to take a day or so to maybe kind of regroup here and think about what’s going on,” said Josh Zembik, a spokesman for Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.

Similarly, Christopher Barnes, a spokesman for Rep. John Larson, said the 1st District Democrat spent Wednesday making calls to some of his closest friends who were swept aside in the GOP surge.

With so many condolences to offer, Larson wasn’t game for an interview about how his role as Democratic Caucus Chairman might be revamped in the next Congress and what message he and other Democrats should take from Tuesday’s results.

Others, including Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Chris Murphy, who represent the 3rd and 5th districts respectively, said they were taking the electoral rebuke, delivered to their party if not to them personally, in stride.

“Obviously it’s more than disappointing,” said DeLauro, who will lose her chairmanship of a powerful House Appropriations subcommittee come January. “But what remains to be seen is the extent to which there can be a working relationship” with the new Republican majority.

Still, she holds no illusions about life in the minority, which in the House means having zero influence over what bills come to the floor and when. “They determine what moves,” she said of the new Republican leaders.

In addition to Himes, Courtney and Murphy are also relative newcomers to Congress and have only known life in the majority, in which their party calls all the shots.

But Murphy, for one, said he’s optimistic about the potential for compromise in the newly revamped Congress. He noted that elections often make small gaps between the parties look like chasms.

Now that the election is over, he said, there might be a rush to the center.

Murphy is Democratic chairman of the bipartisan Center Aisle Caucus, a group of moderate lawmakers. He predicted that when the new Congress convenes, “that group is going to become an incredibly popular stomping ground for both parties, who realize nothing’s going to get done in Washington unless it involves bipartisan cooperation.”

What are the potential areas for compromise?

DeLauro and Murphy both said economic issues are an easy place to start.

“I would hope we can compromise on national growth strategy for how we create jobs and get the economy back on track,” DeLauro said, citing her proposal for a national infrastructure bank that would leverage private and public investments for a wide array of public works projects.

That’s not the No. 1 item on the GOP’s priority list, which is tilted toward cutting federal spending and renewing the tax cuts enacted under ex-President George W. Bush.

On the latter issue, DeLauro and Murphy both said they still firmly believed that Congress should let the tax cuts for families making over $250,000 a year expire. But they also signaled a willingness to take a second look at that contentious issue.

“We need to focus first on deficit reduction before giving massive tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires,” Murphy said. “But I’m always open to compromise, and we cannot let the Bush tax cuts expire for the middle class in the middle of this recovering economy.”

Himes said education and energy policy are two other issues where the opposing parties should be able to find common ground. “We should all agree that a superbly educated population is in everyone’s interest … and that our energy policy is about as bad as it can be,” he said. “Those don’t have to be partisan issues.”

But Himes noted that some GOP leaders have signaled little desire for compromise, and it’s not clear yet what approach the new Republican majority will take to governing.

On health care, for example, the GOP rhetoric has been focused on repealing the law–a proposal not likely to get anywhere while President Obama is still in the White House. But Himes said there is a potentially more productive route on that issue, with lawmakers going back to look at flawed elements of the law and working cooperatively to improve it.

“I hope the approach they take is … let’s keep the good and adjust what isn’t good,” Himes said, saying that while the bill is not perfect, it’s still a dramatic improvement in expanding access to the uninsured. “This will be one of the litmus tests as to whether they are going to be pragmatic or ideological.”

Democrats will be facing the same question. Even as they talked about finding common ground with the GOP, Murphy and others said Democrats should not translate Tuesday’s results into a mandate for cautious or incremental policies.

“This country can’t afford to move incrementally,” Murphy said, adding that Democrats should not back off their commitments to health care reform and the Wall Street overhaul. “When you’re confronted with large systemic problems, you can’t address them with Band-aid solutions.”

DeLauro said there should be some soul-searching among House Democrats about why their party suffered such a rout on Tuesday–but not too much.

“We don’t want to get mired in the past,” she said. “The country wants to know where we are going and how we are going to get to creating jobs … I think we have to move boldly.”

No one in the delegation wanted to talk about whether there should be a shake up in the Democratic leadership, starting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Pelosi, who was prominently featured in GOP attack ads across the country this election, was mum about her plans on Wednesday.

Murphy said she should make a decision on her own, without opinions from him and others in the “peanut gallery.”

Larson’s leadership role, as the 4th ranking Democrat in the House, was similarly in flux, depending in no small part on Pelosi’s decision. He could try to move up, stay put, or step aside. But Barnes said those questions were not on Larson’s mind right now, as the congressman focused on the more immediate fall-out of the elections.