Leadership Changes in the 111th Congress

By Congresspedia assistant editor Avelino Maestas

With Democrats expanding their majorities in the House and Senate during the 2008 congressional elections, members of both parties sought to redefine the leadership structure within their respective caucuses. Some of the shuffling was predictable, while political calculation entered into consideration into other leadership campaigns. In addition, freshman members of the House and Senate were forced to take sides in their first actions in Congress, even though they have not yet taken office.

Much of the publicity centered around the future of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in the Democratic caucus, and over Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-Calif.) bid to replace Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) as chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Republicans had their own drama, however, with a challenge to Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and a shift in the Senate leadership.


In the House, most of the conference leadership remains unchanged. Following a successful stint as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) was expected to pursue another position in the 111th Congress. However, at the behest of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif), Van Hollen will stay at the helm of the DCCC, and also become a special assistant to Pelosi.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md), and House Whip James Clyburn (D-S.D.) will remain in their leadership roles.

The departure of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) so he could accept a position as Chief of Staff for President-Elect Barack Obama in the new administration opened up the job of Democratic caucus chair. Van Hollen had eyes on the position, but Pelosi pushed for Rep. John Larson of Connecticut instead.

The other major change was in committee leadership: Rep. Henry Waxman successfully sought to unseat Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. John Dingell. Waxman, an ally of Pelosi, is much more aggressive on climate change measures, something Dingell has been cautious on for its impact on his Detroit-area district. Dingell was also a frequent roadblock in the push for more strict automobile emissions standards, and Waxman should prove to be a champion of such efforts.

Rep. Edolphus Towns (N.Y.) will likely succeed Waxman as chair of the Government Oversight Committee.

Rep. John Boehner easily defended his Minority Leader position, despite a challenger by Rep. Dan Lungren of California. Boehner was the only top Republican to retain his position, however, as Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Conference Chair Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) decided to step down from their leadership roles. Repulbicans selected Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.) as minority whip and Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) as conference chairman.

On the campaign front, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) also relinquished control of his position; he’ll be replaced by Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas).


The Democratic leadership in the Senate caucus will continue as before, with no significant changes. Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) will remain Majority Leader, while Sens. Dick Durbin and Charles Schumer will stay in the No. 2 and 3 positions of Assistant Majority Leader/Majority Whip and Vice-Conference Chair, respectively. Sen. Robert Byrd will again be President Pro Tempore.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) held onto the gavel of the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, following a lengthy discussion and secret ballot among the Democratic caucus. Several members were upset over Lieberman’s support of Sen. John McCain during the recent presidential election, and specifically over comments Lieberman made disparaging President-Elect Obama. Members voted to strip Lieberman of his seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

There was, however, significant shakeup in committee leadership for Democrats. Sen. Byrd will step down as the head of the Senate Committee on Appropriations. That set up a domino effect, as Sen. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) will leave his chair on the Senate Commerce Committee to replace Byrd. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W. Va.) will be tapped to take over Commerce, leaving his Intelligence Committee chairmanship open. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) could then head the Intelligence Committee.

In addition, the election of Sen. Joe Biden (Del.) as Vice-President has opened up the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) is being tapped to fill that role.

Sen. Mitch McConnell will continue to serve as Minority Leader in the Senate. Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl will serve as Minority Whip, while Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) will remain the Republican Conference Chair. Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, relinquished her role as Republican Policy Committee Chairman, where she’ll be replaced by Sen. John Ensign (Nev.). Hutchison is expected to run for the Texas governorship in 2010.

John Cornyn (Texas) will replace Ensign as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Stay tuned to this space and Congresspedia for the latest news on the 111th Congress.