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Sorry about the last few days without new posts. Been preoccupied. Stuff happens. Anyway…

With a lame-duck Congress in session (and busily accomplishing little other than upsetting Wall Street at the moment), it’s an opportune time to look ahead to the new 111th Congress we’ll have as of January 6th.

In the House, things are fairly straightforward. The Democrats, after regaining the majority in 2006, held 233 seats out of 435, increased to 236 after winning special-election upsets last spring in Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  They won 24 contested seats on November 4, and lost 4, for a net gain of 20, giving them 256. (It’s certainly not the 97 House seats that swept in with FDR in 1932, but it ain’t chopped liver either.) There are three seats still undecided—one in California, one in Virginia, and one (my once-hometown district) in Ohio—two of which look like likely Democratic pickups.  (In the meantime, this creates an awkward situation where both candidates from these districts are in DC for freshman orientation.) Louisiana will also hold a delayed election on December 6, in which one additional seat is likely to go Dem. Likeliest net result:  259 Democratic seats, 176 Republicans.

That’s just shy of a 60% majority, but given the rules by which things run in the House, that percentage isn’t really critical. It’s enough to know that it makes things easier for the majority to move legislation… although the wheels aren’t completely greased. The GOP caucus will be smaller but more staunchly right-wing, as many relatively moderate Republicans lost their seats to Dems. Meanwhile, the conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats will have slightly increased numbers (from 49 to about 52), enough to block progressive legislation if they choose to do so… as they have often done, historically. The bright spot here is that even the Blue Dogs seem prepared to recognize that the current political and economic moment is not conducive to their usual insistence on “pay as you go” fiscal austerity, so we may seem more flexibility than usual when it comes the sort of Keynesian fiscal stimulus so desperately needed right now.

No dramatic changes have happened in the House leadership, as much as I personally might like to see a replacement for Nancy “the country must be governed from the middle” Pelosi. The most notable change is Rep. Xavier Becerra’s likely move into the vice-chairmanship of the caucus, which as blogger Kagro X notes goes against the unwritten convention that such spots tend to go to top fundraisers:

Pelosi’s using her influence to help move a trusted ally into a higher leadership position in contravention to all convention on these matters, taking the money out of the game and boosting a leadership candidate based on… leadership. At least insofar as that’s defined by helping the Speaker design and implement policy. What a concept!

…we really shouldn’t gloss over that bias that a fundraising-based system imposes on the leadership selection process. If you think about it, it’s not hard at all to understand how this system can tend to skew the leadership toward the conservative side of the scale, and impose something of a racial or at least socioeconomic filter, too.

This seems like a decent move, notwithstanding that it means my own rep (Jan Schakowsky, a strong progressive and a top fundraiser) had to step back from moving up this year.

More important than that, however—indeed, perhaps very important in the big picture—is Henry Waxman’s move to displace John Dingell as chair of the critical Energy & Commerce committee. E&C regulates “health care, the internet and telecom (including net neutrality), trade, media policy, energy, consumer protections, and climate change,” and the 82-year-old Dingell has long used his clout to block serious legislation on climate change, not to mention defending the retrogressive policies of Detroit automakers that have now left them in so much trouble. Waxman is a progressive, “green” legislator, and his leadership would make for a dramatic improvement. The Steering and Policy committee has backed Waxman, and insiders say Pelosi is quietly pushing for him as well; a decision from the full Democratic caucus is expected today as I write this.

Meanwhile, things look a bit more dramatic in the upper chamber.

The Democrats previously had 49 Senate seats, holding a hairsbreadth majority only because two independents caucused with them: Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, and Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman. Sanders is a reliable progressive; Lieberman, well… not so much. But almost all the key races have fallen their way:  as of the November 4th results they leapt to 54 seats; Jeff Merkley’s close come-from-behind win in Oregon and Mark Begich’s victory over Ted “series of tubes” Stevens make that 56. The Senate Democratic caucus has welcomed Lieberman back into the fold as well, giving him back his Homeland Security chairmanship (despite considerable well-deserved scorn from the grass roots, myself included, who would have preferred to tell him to pound sand); at least we might hope that he’ll toe the line a bit more, preferring to hold on to such influence as he has rather than face the alternative of aligning with the minority. So call that 58 seats. The Republicans have held on to 40.

That leaves two. In Minnesota, a hand recount of 2.9 million votes began yesterday, to resolve a race between challenger Al Franken and corrupt right-wing hack Norm Coleman for the seat that once belonged to the late, much-missed Paul Wellstone. There were barely 200 votes between them, roughly .007 percent. Projections give good odds to Franken, but nothing will be definite until December 15… possibly later, if litigation ensues. Meanwhile, in Georgia, neither incumbent Saxby Chambliss nor challenger Jim Martin won more than 50% of the vote (largely thanks to a third-party spoiler), forcing a runoff election on December 2nd. Obama’s strategy team has jumped in to help Martin, and Bill Clinton and Al Gore have already been down in Georgia stumping for him.

Thinking optimistically, if both of those seats fall to the Dems, the party will have hit 60 votes… an outcome that seemed utterly out of reach only months ago.

Sixty votes is a magic number. By Senate rules, it’s enough to defeat a filibuster and force an up-or-down vote. In the Senate term now concluding, linguini-spined majority leader Harry Reid often bowed to minority filibusters, including many that were merely threatened rather than carried out. Sixty votes means that the majority will have a much easier time passing the kind of bold legislation that the times demand, without bending to terms set by the right.

In a pinch, the Dems might even peel off a vote or two from Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins (both from Maine, and among the few genuinely moderate Republicans left in Washington). Indeed, if those last two races don’t both fall Democratic, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Dem leadership might even entice one of them to jump ship, as Jim Jeffords did back in 2001. (Indeed, Snowe herself is already staking out a strong position on comprehensive energy policy reform, obviously seeking to be a player on this key issue.)

(Unfortunately, like the House, Senate Dems elected to stand pat with their current leadership, keeping Reid in his post. I’d been hoping for a leadership challenge from someone a bit more willing to take important stands, like Chris Dodd. But on the bright side, at least Illinois’ own Dick Durbin also held onto his number-two position as majority whip; Durbin has emerged as a surprisingly outspoken progressive voice in recent years.)

So if “change” isn’t exactly the watchword from the incoming Congress thus far, so much as “caution” and “continuity,” at least in terms of leadership… still, the changes we can point to seem largely to be positive ones. This is a Congress that will be in a position to get important things done… and with Dem control at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, one that will have no one left to blame if it fails to do so. It will be a defining moment. Come January, we the voters should expect action, and reject excuses.

Update: the breaking news is good! MSNBC reports that Waxman has successfully unseated Dingell from the chairmanship of the E&C committee, by a secret ballot of 137-122. This definitely signals a turn toward the progressive side in crucial policy areas like climate, energy, and health care.

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