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Democrats, Republicans Jockey for New Capitol Roles

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams joins us now for some analysis on the House leadership races. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, Juan, is this House leadership mostly about personal alliances or real issues?

WILLIAMS: Well, the bottom line here, Renee, is old-fashioned, hardball politics. There is an issue at play, however. It's one that decided the election, the war. John Murtha got out early on it and strengthened the hand of Pelosi and all Democrats opposing the war with his credibility as a Vietnam veteran. He took a lot of criticism from the Bush White House for spearheading the call for troops to begin coming home.

So he's a hero to the anti-war base in the Democratic Party. So by backing Murtha, Pelosi is sending a signal to voters, establishing her leadership of the Democrats and the look of the party as firmly rooted in opposition to the war. Steny Hoyer is much more moderate on the war.

Now back to the pure politics of it, Renee. Hoyer is also a man who challenged Pelosi for the minority whip position back in 2001. When she defeated Hoyer for that post, it was John Murtha who was her campaign manager.

MONTAGNE: So with the Democrats, who do you see must doubt about who wins?

WILLIAMS: No, not really. Hoyer has the House majority leader post I think wrapped up. Although late yesterday the word was around town that Pelosi was beginning to make some phone calls for Murtha. But she wasn't yet using her biggest weapon of threatening to take away anyone's committee assignments. You've got to remember, this will be a secret vote, Renee. Hoyer, by the measure of people high up in the Democratic Party, has the votes to win.

Pelosi may feel, though, that even if Hoyer wins, he's no threat to her. In fact, that puts him in the position of having to prove that he will still be a loyal lieutenant. Pelosi may be a 66-year-old grandmother but she's showing a really bold streak here. Making it clear she's willing to punish anyone who challenges her and reward her friends.

MONTAGNE: Grandmother, of course, as she says of herself. On the Republican side, you have Mike Pence of Indiana and John Shadegg of Arizona running for GOP leader and whip, respectively. And they're challenging incumbents, men who've held the majority versions of those positions.

WILLIAMS: You're right. Yesterday, it still look like John Boehner and Roy Blunt have what remains of the Tom DeLay/Dennie Hastert GOP leadership team lining up behind them. Hastert, who remains speaker of the House until the end of this session, has said he does not want to be minority leader when the Democrats take control in January. But the outsiders in this content, Pence and Shadegg, appeal to movement conservatives, Renee, people who were unhappy with the Abramoff scandal, the Foley scandal, deficit spending.

Blunt and Boehner were acolytes of the money politics version of conservative politics as played by Tom DeLay. The question now is whether the upstarts are able to capitalize on the party's losses in the midterms to stir up enough anger to erase what remains of the old guard right now.

MONTAGNE: And Democrats added another seat to their victory total yesterday when they claimed a seat the Republicans had held in Connecticut. Why was that result just coming in?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, they had an automatic recount because the difference was less than one-half of one percent of the total vote. But the Associated Press reported yesterday they expect Joe Courtney will be certified today as the winner in the 2nd Congressional District. He will win apparently by just 91 votes out of 250,000 cast, defeating incumbent Rob Simmons. He's the second Democrat to defeat a Republican incumbent in Connecticut this year. Democrat Chris Murphy defeated 12-term incumbent Nancy Johnson last week.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juan Williams
Juan Williams, one of America's leading journalists, is a news analyst, appearing regularly on NPR's Morning Edition. Knowledgeable and charismatic, Williams brings insight and depth — hallmarks of NPR programs — to a wide spectrum of issues and ideas.