Out with the old, in with the new in the Senate as Congress set to reconvene

In a Congress dominated by complicated bills and wonky policy fights, perhaps the biggest challenge for members of the Senate was simply keeping straight the names of all their colleagues. 

The 111th Congress will go down as one of the most chaotic in Senate history because of the constant turnover in personnel.

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That influx of fresh faces means the 112th Congress will begin with a notably inexperienced group of senators.

More than one-fifth of the upper chamber’s 100 seats changed hands over the last two years. Three states — Delaware, Illinois and West Virginia — saw their seats turn over twice. Only about a dozen seats had changed hands in each of the previous two Senates.
 
To find more turnover, one has to go back to the 79th Congress of 1945-47 in which 14 members were appointed to fill Senate vacancies.

“We're going to have a lot of senators in their first term [in the next Congress],” said Betty Koed, associate historian of the Senate. “Because of recent elections, close to half of the Senate is in its first term and is less experienced.”

There will be only 28 senators in the upper chamber who have served more than one full term when Congress is sworn in Jan. 5, according to Koed. There will be 30 senators with less than three years of experience in the office, while another 42 senators will still be serving out their first six-year term.

Stephen Hess, a resident scholar with the Brookings Institution, said the new batch of senators is likely to continue a trend of making the Senate more like the House.

“What's happened in recent years is the large number of people who moved from the House to the Senate brought a lot of their attitude with them,” he said.

Hess doesn’t think the relative lack of experience will be a problem. The Senate “is an institution that can quickly absorb and assess its own, in part, because of a rigid seniority system,” he said. “In 1958, we lost 14 senators and the world continued.”

The Senate’s rapid turnover cycle began with President Obama’s election in 2008.

The victory created four vacancies by opening up a Senate seat in Illinois and sending then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) to the vice president’s office and then-Sens. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Hillary Clinton (D- N.Y.) to Obama's Cabinet.

Though Democratic governors appointed fellow Democrats to all four seats, three of the four seats were in play during the 2010 midterm election. Democrats ended up losing Obama's old seat in Illinois.

Obama's election victory gave Roland Burris a turn in the Senate. But his appointment to the president's old seat by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich set off months of controversy after allegations of corruption surfaced. Blagojevich was eventually convicted of corruption charges.

Former Biden senior aide Ted Kaufman was appointed to the vice president’s old seat, mostly to keep it warm for Biden’s son Beau Biden, Delaware’s attorney general.

But sensing a tough race against former governor Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), the younger Biden ended up deciding not to run for the Senate. Democrat Chris Coons won the seat after Tea Party-backed candidate Christine O’Donnell (R) — who proved to be a disastrous candidate in the general election — upset Castle in a primary.

Then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) were appointed to Clinton’s and Salazar’s seats, respectively, and both won reelection in November.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) wasn’t able to join the Senate until the summer of 2009 because of a long battle in the courts with the man he defeated, Republican former Sen. Norm Coleman. Franken’s arrival, coupled with the defection of Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) from the Republican Party, gave Obama the 60 votes he needed to break GOP filibusters in the Senate and move forward on healthcare reform.

The Senate also lost a reservoir of institutional knowledge during the 2009-10 term. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) both died while in office, depriving the Senate of nearly 100 years of upper chamber experience.

After Kennedy died in August 2009, he was temporarily replaced in the Senate by longtime aide Paul Kirk Jr.

Democrats felt their 60-seat majority would stand despite the special election to replace Kennedy in February 2009. But liberal-leaning Massachusetts surprised everyone by electing Scott Brown, a little-known Republican state senator, to finish out the second half of Kennedy’s term.

Brown’s victory initially threatened to scuttle Obama’s hopes for passing healthcare reform, but Democrats ultimately figured out a legislative maneuver that avoided needing 60 votes to break a filibuster.

June 2010 saw the death of Byrd, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history. Carte Goodwin, the general counsel to West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D), briefly became the youngest senator with his appointment to Byrd’s seat. Goodwin formally made way for his old boss when Manchin was elected to the seat in November.

Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez retired prematurely in February 2009 and was replaced by George LeMieux (R) to serve the remaining 16 months of his term.

The midterm elections also saw the election of 13 new senators from Connecticut, Arkansas, New Hampshire, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, North Dakota, Utah, Ohio, Florida, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Specter and Russ Feingold (Wis.) lost their respective bids for reelection, while Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) all retired or ran for other offices.

Specter had hoped to avoid a loss in the GOP by switching parties but ended up losing his primary battle as a Democrat.
 
Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) lost his bid for another term after he was deemed too centrist at his Republican convention.

The last bit of craziness in the Senate concerned a seat that didn’t change hands and was completed only this week. Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski lost the Republican primary to Tea Party favorite Joe Miller, but she won the general election as a write-in candidate, becoming the first woman and only the second person to do so in U.S. Senate history.

A federal judge on Tuesday threw out Miller’s challenge to Murkowski’s win, clearing the way for her to take office.