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Newly Sworn-In 113th Congress Is the Most Diverse in History, But Not the Most Progressive

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We look at the newly sworn-in 113th Congress with The Nation magazine’s political writer, John Nichols. The House now has 81 women, 61 of them Democrats, while the new Senate includes 20 women. There will be 44 African Americans in the House and one in the Senate. The Congress also includes nine new Latino members, making it the largest Latino class in history with 28 House seats and three Senate seats, two of whom are Republican. The new Congress also includes the first openly gay senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and the first open bisexual representative, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, as well as more religious diversity with two two Buddhists, a Hindu and several Muslims. For the first time, white men will be a minority among House Democrats. “We have to be very, very cautious about presuming that simply having a more diverse Congress means that we’re going to get better results,” notes Nichols, who stresses the importance of filibuster reform, which lawmakers are expected to address in the coming weeks. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with the new Congress, the most diverse in the nation’s history with a record number of women and minority members. The House now has 81 women, 61 of them Democrats, while the new Senate includes 20 women. There will be 44 African Americans in the House and one in the Senate. The Congress also includes nine new Latino members, making it the largest Latino class in history, with 28 House seats and three Senate seats, two of whom are Republican. The 113th Congress includes the first openly gay senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. The first open bisexual was also elected to the House, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. For the first time, white men will be a minority among House Democrats.

The new crop of lawmakers was sworn into office Thursday, with House Speaker John Boehner re-elected to his post amidst the prospect of more budget battles with the White House.

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: As speaker, I pledge to listen and to do all I can to help all of you carry out your oath of office that we are about—all about to take. Because in our hearts we know it’s wrong to pass this debt onto our kids and our grandkids, now we have to be willing, truly willing, to make this problem right.

AMY GOODMAN: To find out more about the new Congress, we’re joined via Democracy Now! video stream by John Nichols, political writer for The Nation, author of Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street. He joins us from Madison, Wisconsin.

John, welcome to Democracy Now! Your assessment of the new Congress?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, as Juan was suggesting—excuse me—as Juan was suggesting, it really is a different Congress. This is a much more diverse Congress. And notably, it’s a more progressive Congress, particularly the Senate. The changes that occurred in the Senate in particular seats, even seats that had been held by Democrats, have moved it to the left. And so, it’s a Congress that has the potential to do some things that weren’t done in the past.

But it is also a very vulnerable Congress. The important thing to understand is this: This is a divided Congress. The House is minimally controlled by the Republicans. It’s important to say the term “minimally” because there’s a lot of chaos in that Republican caucus. The Senate is clearly under Democratic control, but that Democratic control has very little meaning without filibuster reform. And this is perhaps the most important thing we’ll discuss today. If the Democrats want to actually exercise some sort of power, and if they want to be able to negotiate with the Republican House in some sort of realistic way, they are going to have to reform the filibuster rules so that they can’t be blocked at every turn, even in bringing bills to a vote.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But now, John, the Senate, which initially had said it was going to move quickly to reform the rules on filibustering, didn’t do that. What do you see as the prospects over the next few weeks of reforms in the rules of the Senate?

JOHN NICHOLS: Juan, I’m very concerned about that delay. They could have made the changes yesterday. They could have begun to do the process right away, and that’s historically how it should be done. The Senate sets its own rules. They are established on the first day of session. What Harry Reid did, the majority leader, was to extend the first day. He essentially used a parliamentary maneuver, so that filibuster reform can be done up to, say, around January 22nd, January 23rd. And so he’s held the door open. But the concern I have is that Reid, a handful of moderate Democrats and the Republicans will negotiate a filibuster reform that is not real reform, that will effectively allow the delaying tactics, the behind-closed-door maneuvers, to continue. I cannot emphasize, if that is the case, then it is very likely that we’ll continue to see an exceptionally gridlocked Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the close race, the speaker’s race being a squeaker yesterday for John Boehner—tremendous wrath he invoked on both party sides when he didn’t pass the Superstorm Sandy relief bill right away. There’s going to be a vote today and a vote in a week or so. But talk about John Boehner’s control over his party, what he represents. Who are the powers that are pushing him?

JOHN NICHOLS: John Boehner has authority because he is weak, not because he is strong. That’s the important thing to understand. He was allowed to remain as speaker of an exceptionally divided and contentious Republican caucus because they all believed that they could push him around. And that’s a very important thing to understand. He does not come into his speakership for this term with any sort of mandate—in fact, quite the opposite. His own caucus has deep divisions between a Northeastern bloc, which you referenced, which is very, very concerned not just about Sandy, but, as Peter King just mentioned this morning, things such as the assault weapons ban. You have Republicans within that caucus who want to work with the Obama administration on a number of issues. And then, on the other side, you’ve got a tea party faction, which is much larger, that really does not want to work with the president at all, that is apparently quite confident in the power of both gridlock and [inaudible] actual chaos as somehow their best route to getting an extended stint in power. And so, what Boehner is doing is sort of trying to ride on top of all of this.

He had a near fiasco yesterday. For a few minutes, it appeared that the hard right within his caucus, a faction of very extreme budget hawks, might garner enough votes to prevent him from winning the speakership on the first ballot. Now that wouldn’t have knocked him out as speaker; there would have been a second vote. But he actually only won the speakership by two votes more than the majority in the House, which is quite a remarkably close thing.

But it’s also—that—if I can add, that’s an important reminder of how narrowly divided the House of Representatives now is. We cover elections horribly in America, and so we tend to presume that the results that come out on election night are definitional. The reality is that votes keep getting counted. And as the results have come in from states like Arizona and California, we’ve seen many Republican seats fall to the Democrats. So, Boehner’s majority is much smaller. His legitimacy is also much reduced, because the plurality of voters who cast ballots on November 6 voted for a Democratic House of Representatives. They only got a Republican House because of gerrymandering in the redistricting process and the massive expenditures by Karl Rove’s operations, as well as the concentration of Democratic votes in some urban areas.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And John, obviously, in this more diverse Congress than ever, the numbers of African Americans and Latinos serving in both the House and the Senate are really at record levels. And yet, we’ve come through a period of time where the attention of Congress to issues of racial inequity has perhaps been lower than it has been in decades. What do you see as the prospects, as obviously immigration reform will be on the table, for any kind of substantive change in this area by the new Congress?

JOHN NICHOLS: Juan, you go to the heart of the matter: Is this Congress truly representative of the American people, their desires and their diversity? It’s beginning to get better, in some ways, but I think we have to be very, very cautious about presuming that simply having a more diverse Congress means that we’re going to get better results. Clearly, the diversity is important, and it’s not just racial and ethnic. We also have a great deal more religious diversity. The Congress now has two Buddhists, a Hindu, several Muslims. And so, it is becoming more diverse in all sorts of very important ways. But that diversity is very much concentrated in the Democratic caucuses.

And so, if you’re to have real progress in this Congress, you have to start to look at procedural actions. And I would emphasize two things. First off, that filibuster reform that I mentioned before, that allows the Senate to be functional, to actually pass bills and to effectively negotiate with the House. In the House of Representatives, I think President Obama has some responsibilities. He has to reach out to more moderate, or at least moderately conservative and responsible, Republicans and try to foster the creation of a get-things-done caucus, if you will, that includes both Democrats and some Republicans. If he does that, say, on the assault weapons ban and perhaps on immigration reform, he could get some real things done. But it will not happen organically within the House of Representatives. There’s going to have to be some pressure from the top, perhaps even the president going on the road into some of these congressional districts of the somewhat more moderate Republicans.

AMY GOODMAN: First African-American senator, a Republican from South Carolina.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, well, first in [inaudible], although it’s important to remember that we had a very, very liberal African-American senator from Massachusetts elected in 1966, Edward Brooke. Tim Scott from South Carolina is the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction. He is exceptionally conservative and much like a Herman Cain. He reinforces many of the tea party’s messages. I do not see him emerging as a particularly distinct figure outside of the tea party messaging, but he will be a part of that. It’s also significant, Marco Rubio from Florida, perhaps a more significant player, and perhaps Ted Cruz from Texas, both Latinos, who could become key players on immigration reform. That is—there is diversity within the Republican caucus. And what you want to look at with those folks is, are there places where they will begin to educate and move their caucus, which has tended toward some very reactionary positions, at least moderately toward the center?

AMY GOODMAN: And from your own state, Wisconsin, the first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin.

JOHN NICHOLS: Indeed. It’s quite remarkable. Tammy Baldwin, who is not merely—although it’s certainly significant—the first openly lesbian or gay senator, the first out-of-the-closet lesbian or gay to be elected throughout her career as such—really remarkable progress—but also the fact that she’s a committed progressive. She was a member of the House and Progressive Congressional Caucus. She voted against the Iraq war, against the PATRIOT Act, against getting rid of Glass-Steagall. Having somebody like that go into the Senate means that Bernie Sanders is going to have a real ally there. And Tammy Baldwin’s seat was taken by a gentleman named Mark Pocan, who is an out gay man, who is married to his partner, went to Canada to get married, and is, again, an absolute committed progressive, joining the Progressive Caucus.

And so, what we’re seeing is that this diversity, with African Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians coming into the Congress, many of them—not all, but many of them—are coming as broad-spectrum progressives who are—who recognize the importance of connecting all sorts of liberation movements. And this is a really big deal. I think these are folks we’re going to look to to be real leaders in the new Congress on the progressive issues that have to be raised.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, we want to thank you for being with us, political writer for The Nation, author of Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, speaking to us from his home in Madison, Wisconsin.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, will the New York governor lift a ban on fracking, a moratorium on fracking? We’ll have a debate on the controversial practice. Stay with us.

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