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New Order: The changeover in Congress isn't all bad for Illinois

One of your own as speaker of the U.S. House, the most powerful individual on Capitol Hill? It doesn't get any better than that.

Illinois enjoyed that designation for eight years when Republican Dennis Hastert, a former history teacher and wrestling coach from Yorkville, held the post. Now it's California's turn — Democrat Nancy Pelosi's turn — with the speaker's gavel.

The new makeup of Congress is not all bad news for Illinois, though. When the 110th Congress began work last month, with Democrats assuming control of both chambers for the first time since 1995, other members of the state's delegation gained considerable influence.

Democrat Richard Durbin of Springfield became the No. 2 ranking member of the U.S. Senate. And, while Democrat Barack Obama of Chicago is just beginning his third year on Capitol Hill, he does so with great political capital.

"A lot of people owe Barack a favor," Durbin says. "In the course of the last few years, he has helped more senators raise money and get re-elected than anyone else in the Senate. And so when Barack asks for something, for help for Illinois or help with a bill, I think people will do their best to help him."

Obama, who has been considering a candidacy for president in 2008, returns the compliment: "Dick Durbin is going to have an enormous amount of clout in terms of helping to shape the debate on the floor of the Senate."

Across the Capitol rotunda, other Illinois Democrats gained ground. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, the architect of that party's takeover of the U.S. House, began his third term in the chamber's No. 4 ranking position, caucus chairman.

The role traditionally is mostly ceremonial, but Emanuel is expected to have more substantial duties over such matters as party policy and strategy for protecting vulnerable incumbents. This was apparent when the Democrats detailed their policy agenda early last month. Emanuel was a public face of his team.

At the same time, other Illinois Democrats are now leading powerful subcommittees. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago is chairman of a subcommittee dealing with domestic and international monetary policy and Rep. Jerry Costello of Belleville is chairman of a subcommittee on aviation.

Anticipating their enhanced power on Capitol Hill, Gutierrez and Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. each said after the November election that he won't run for mayor of Chicago this spring.

On the other hand, the partisan changeover in Congress means reduced influence for Peoria Republican Rep. Ray LaHood on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. It means Rep. Donald Manzullo, an Egan Republican, no longer chairs the Small Business Committee.

"At the end of the day, are we going to be as effective as we were when Denny Hastert was speaker? Of course not," says Rep. Tim Johnson, an Urbana Republican. "But are we still going to be an effective group of 19 representatives and two senators who can advocate for the state? Yes, I think we are."

The state's delegation is comprised of 10 Democrats and nine Republicans, the same as in the previous Congress, though there are two new members. Rep. Phil Hare, a Rock Island Democrat, replaced U.S. Rep. Lane Evans, another Rock Island Demo-crat who retired because of Parkinson's disease. Hare was a longtime aide to Evans. Rep. Peter Roskam, a Wheaton Republican, replaced retired Rep. Henry Hyde, the GOP stalwart from Wood Dale. Roskam, a trial lawyer, served 13 years in the General Assembly, where he was known for his pointed criticism of Demo-cratic initiatives during floor debate.

Nationally, Democrats hold a modest majority of 51 votes in the Senate, two more than Republicans in that chamber. Over in the House, the margin is larger. Democrats now hold a 233-202 edge. 

However narrow their advantage, Democrats have an ambitious agenda for the 110th Congress. They promised to raise the minimum wage, expand stem cell research, push the federal government to negotiate better prices for prescription drugs offered through Medicare and reduce the cost of student loans. They say they also will rein in the influence of lobbyists while spotlighting the inner workings of Congress, all in the name of ethics. And they intend to begin the process of steering American troops home from Iraq.

Closer to home, the state's delegation is working to land FutureGen, a cutting-edge coal-burning power plant that will be sponsored by the federal government. Mattoon and Tuscola are finalists for the plant. The delegation also is pushing the feds to build in this state a rare isotope accelerator — a tool for studying nuclear physics.

That's not to say there's complete unanimity of interests. An ideological shift in Congress could, for instance, favor Chicago and other major Illinois cities if the Democrats push policies that benefit urban communities. Rep. Dan 

Lipinski, a Chicago Democrat, says he'll promote expanded federal support of mass transit.

"There was a shift under the Republicans that operating expenses were not paid for with federal dollars. Infrastructure was, but not the operating expenses," Lipinski says. "I'm hoping that we may be able to change that, although we'll be in tight budgets. I believe the Democrats understand the importance of mass transit; it may be more important to Democratic areas than to Republican areas."

That's what Collinsville Republican Rep. John Shimkus fears. He says his downstate constituents stand to lose if the Democrats advance a liberal social agenda. "There are conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, but for the most part the majority of liberals are Democrats and the majority of conservatives are Republicans," Shimkus says. "So when you're not in power, the ideological debate moves to whichever party is in power. So I think central and southern Illinois will definitely be disadvantaged by Democratic control because they believe in bigger government."

Democrats recognize they must avoid a big government image. Costello, who also represents a downstate district, says it would not behoove the Democrats to veer too far left from center. "For the last six years, we have seen a Congress that has come from the far right. And I think some in the far right expect that Nancy Pelosi, who is very liberal, will govern from the far left," he says. "But she will not govern from the far left because those of us who are Democrats in the Democratic caucus do not want to govern from the far left. We are where the American people are, which is generally in the middle."

Costello predicts the Democrats will focus their reign on challenging the decisions of Republican President George W. Bush. They've wasted no time. In 

January, they began a series of hearings on the war in Iraq.

"For the last six years, there has been a lack of oversight of the administration and of governmental agencies. No-bid contracts going to Halliburton and other no-bid ontracts, both through [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and the Department of Defense, have gone unquestioned," Costello says. "I think that one of the things that the American people said on November 7 is that they want accountability. They want a check and balance."

Beyond that, the Demo-crats pledge a new tone for Congress. "We're going to have, I hope, a kinder, gentler Congress," Hare says, "where we can get open debates and let people go to the floor and offer amendments and be able to discuss the bills. We will be an inclusive Congress, not an exclusive one like we had before."

George H.W. Bush used the same expression — calling for "a kinder, gentler nation" — during his 1988 campaign for president. 

It was an apparent attempt to distinguish himself from the hard-right edge of predecessor Ronald Reagan.

Similarly, the Democrats are determined to convince the public they will lead Capitol Hill without such a hard edge — without being ideologically overzealous and intolerant of the minority view. This won't be easy over the long term as Republicans will be on alert for any hint Democrats are shutting them out.

Rep. Judy Biggert, a Hinsdale Republican, says Democrats in early January were slow to share details of their much-touted "first 100 hours" plan. If Democrats shroud their agenda in secrecy, she says, "I think that's going to raise a red flag very fast."

It's a delicate balance that Democrats must strike to govern from the center. While leaders such as Pelosi are renowned liberals, their freshman class has a decidedly conservative tilt. In his coordinated national campaign, Emanuel deliberately recruited more conservative Democrats to unseat Republicans in districts and states thought to lean Republican. Eighteen of the 29 Democrats who unseated House Republicans belong to the pro-business New Democrat Coalition, the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, or both, according to Congressional Quarterly.

Rep. Melissa Bean, a Barrington Democrat who is beginning her second term, belongs to the Blue Dog group, and she says the influence of both groups is growing. "As that [Blue Dog] caucus grows, along with the New Democrats, which is also a pro-growth and centrist group, as well — what it does is makes us very much a part of the mix," she says.

For now, the Democrats aim to pre-empt any image of a do-nothing, Democrat-led Congress by pledging to make lawmakers spend more time working in Washington. Any grumbling on that score isn't obvious in Illinois. "If you're driving a UPS truck or you're a farmer, you get up every day and you have to work every day," Hare says. "So if it's good enough for people in Illinois, it's good enough for Congress. When I worked in a clothing store, I would work 60 or 70 hours."

Besides the political risks of appearing too liberal or ideological, the Democrats must reconcile that slim 51-vote majority in the Senate. 

"In the United States Senate it takes 60 votes to do anything significant," Durbin says. "As a member of the minority, I thought that was a wonderful precedent, rule, tradition. In the majority I look at it a little differently. But the fact is that in order to pass anything significant, I need nine Republican senators to cross the aisle."

Obama says he looks forward to hearings on bills he couldn't advance when Republicans had control. However, he may not be able to win approval for those bills without bipartisan support. 

"It's pretty simple arithmetic," Obama says. "If you don't achieve unanimity in the Democratic caucus and get at least nine Republican votes, then you can be blocked from moving issues forward. And that's not a lot of margin for error."

Determined to appear truly interested in making Congress more transparent and accountable, the Democrats acted quickly to reform budget earmarks — grants lawmakers attach to the federal budget. Often it isn't clear which lawmaker is seeking the grant, or why, and in the past year, the controversial process came to symbolize a Congress more interested in back-room deals with lobbyists than in transparency for the public good. 

When the 109th Congress adjourned in December, the Senate failed to act on nine appropriations bills containing most of the earmarks lawmakers put to the side. Now Democrats promise to revamp the process, shedding more light on who asked for which dollars.

Both parties support the concept of earmarks. Despite reports about abuses and wasteful spending, lawmakers say they need the budget mechanism to tend to specific needs in their districts. "Eliminating earmarks does not save money," Manzullo says. "It just puts more money back in the hands of the unelected bureaucrats."

The day after they assumed control in January, however, House Democrats amended the chamber's rules governing earmarks. Members must now provide justification for each earmark and certify that it will not benefit lawmakers or their spouses.

Procedural or ideological issues aside, members of the Illinois congressional delegation credit themselves with strong bipartisan cooperation. 

"I think the voters have the expectation that the Illinois delegation will be able to put aside donkeys and elephants when that's appropriate to help direct as much support to Illinois as possible," says Roskam.

And Manzullo says the close working relationship within the delegation, regardless of who occupies the White House or which party controls Congress, is its hallmark. He therefore believes the delegation can continue to serve Illinois just as it did in the previous Congress.

"The bottom line is that I see no significant change in the things that I can do for my district and the things that all of us in Illinois can do for each other," he says.

Yes, the speaker of the U.S. House has tremendous influence over the chamber's agenda. For eight years, Hastert had the power to block spending plans and other legislation that did not sufficiently favor Illinois. He helped secure federal dollars for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield and presided over the massive federal transportation program approved in 2005. That five-year plan, worth $286.4 billion, promises $9.4 billion for Illinois. 

Hastert announced after the November election he would resign from House Republican leadership, though he said he would continue serving in Congress as a rank-and-file member. He may continue to wield influence. As Johnson says, "Denny Hastert is not going to just fade into the woodwork and do nothing positive for the state or his district or for the collective delegation. He still has a good staff, and he still continues to have friends throughout the process on both sides of the aisle and in the executive branch of government."

But it's clear that he won't have nearly as much clout.

"Let's acknowledge the obvious: There is no more powerful position on Capitol Hill than the position of speaker of the House," Durbin says. "Denny Hastert of Illinois, as speaker, did more for our state than any single individual of the House or Senate could hope to accomplish. No one is going to step into a position that is as close to the power of speaker."

The loss of that power was immediately visible. As Pelosi took the gavel in early January, Hastert stood slumping beside Republicans in the rear of the chamber with arms folded.

Some Republicans aim to make the best of the new order. LaHood says that he must work to cultivate support from Democrats in order to accomplish his goals. He says he's friends with both Durbin and Emanuel. "There's nobody more bipartisan," he says, "than Ray LaHood." 

 


Aaron Chambers is Statehouse reporter for the Rockford Register Star.

Illinois Issues, February 2007

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