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First glance


From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby.
Trent Lott's campaign to become Senate minority whip brings a lot to mind.  Most of all, of course, it reminds us of the reasons why he's now having to climb back up the leadership ladder in the first place: the ill-judged comment at Strom Thurmond's birthday party in late 2002; the succession of apologies, including on BET; and finally, the relinquishing of his leader post.  It also reminds us that politics can be an especially forgiving business.

And, it raises the point that despite the shake-up last Tuesday, we aren't seeing any prominent new faces on Capitol Hill.  The congressional system remains so biased toward seniority and back-room experience that a controversial figure like Lott may still be better positioned to advance than a comparably fresh face like one-termer Lamar Alexander.  Of course, Senate Republicans may prefer Lott to Alexander because of their bumpy ride under the less-experienced Bill Frist.  But in their election of a leader on Friday, House Republicans will likely stick with John Boehner; Senate Democrats will be led by Harry Reid and Dick Durbin; and House Democrats will continue to follow Nancy Pelosi and, most likely, Steny Hoyer. 

But the biggest sign of how little is changing are all the "new" prospective Democratic committee chairs in the House, including names like Conyers, Dingell, Frank, Obey, Rangel, and Waxman.  Of all of them, only one was elected after Democrats lost the House in 1994: Juanita Millender-McDonald, elected in 1996, will likely chair the Administration Committee.  Probable Homeland Security and Government Reform chair Bennie Thompson was elected in 1993.  Many of the others were first elected decades before.

Pelosi did suggest earlier this year that seniority would be one factor, but not the only factor determining which members become chairs.  But at least at this point, as we wait for the assignments to be finalized, the only committee that might not be chaired by its most senior Democrat is Intelligence.  Former judge turned Rep. Alcee Hastings' impeachment from the bench may keep him from getting that very sensitive post.

One of us co-authored an article back in February about how House Democrats seem more wedded to seniority and appear to do less to promote younger members than House Republicans.  After the reformist Gang of Seven made a splash by taking on colleagues over the House Bank scandal, Newt Gingrich's new rules included term limits for Republican committee chairs, which guaranteed an injection of some new blood every so often over the past 12 years.  After the article ran, one senior House Democrat, who now happens to be the prospective chair of a powerful committee, complained that the sentiments in the piece were "ageist." 

But the issue here is not so much about age as it is about openness to promoting new blood and making a concerted effort to shed old habits, particularly after the exit polls on election day showed voters repudiating what they viewed as an arrogant, entrenched majority party.  For all their years in the minority, and despite all the Hill scandals this year, Democrats never produced a Gingrich or a Gang.  They continue to promote those who have been in the system the longest, and are charging them with cleaning it up.  That may be one reason why polls show people doubting that Democrats will really tackle congressional reform. 

Passage of some key reforms during Democrats' first 100 legislative hours in January, as Pelosi intends, should change some minds.  But her endorsement of Rep. John Murtha for majority leader despite Murtha's brush with Abscam and other ethical blips is symptomatic of this larger issue, and has now cast a shadow over House Democrats' commitment to reform.  As MSNBC's Tom Curry reported, when Murtha was asked whether his ethical baggage would make him the wrong leader at this point, he said, "Wait 'til you see the ethics package we'll pass and I'll support."  Reminded that he didn't support the last one, he said, "But you'll see me support the next one."

Coincidentally, Jack Abramoff entered a federal prison this morning to serve out a 70-month term on his fraud conviction involving the SunCruz gambling casino scandal.  As NBC's Joel Seidman notes, this scandal was overshadowed by his role in the Washington influence-peddling probe.  Now the Justice Department and Abramoff's attorneys are asking a judge to rush Abramoff's sentencing on these other charges on Friday.  The reason: to have Abramoff imprisoned at a federal facility close to Washington so it would be more convenient for Justice Department investigators to elicit his continued cooperation in their probe.