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Senate Democrats decide on party leaders

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Posted: Tuesday, November 14, 2006 9:49 am

WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats picked two women for senior posts Tuesday, and their choice as majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, said a top priority is getting a new secretary of defense confirmed." class="content-link" target="320">Watch video coverage

Reid told The Associated Press that he supports replacing Donald Rumsfeld with former CIA Director Robert Gates by year's end, as President Bush has urged.

"I hope we can move it forward quickly," Reid, of Nevada, told the Associated Press after the Democratic caucus in the Old Senate Chamber. "The sooner we can move it forward the sooner we can get rid of Rumsfeld," he said.

Reid spoke after winning election to the top leadership unopposed and presenting the rest of the Democratic leadership team elected by the caucus during a private meeting in the historic chamber used since the Civil War for the Senate's most delicate decisions.

He said that the seldom-used chamber was an appropriate venue, given the election results in which Democrats wrested control of Congress from Republicans for the first time in a dozen years.

When the 110th Congress convenes in January, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois will be Reid's deputy as the vote-counting majority whip.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., will continue serving as the cash-raising campaign committee chairman, and also will assume the title of vice chairman of the Democratic caucus. As such, Reid said, Schumer will act as a utility man who will tend to whatever policy or political matters require.

Filling out the roster are two women: Sen. Patty Murray of Washington will serve as conference secretary, while Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., will head the party steering committee.

That panel, in turn, was meeting later Tuesday to choose committee chairmen.

House Democrats face a difficult choice when they pick their leaders Thursday, now that speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi has rejected her current top lieutenant in favor of longtime confidante John Murtha of Pennsylvania.

Murtha, a blunt Vietnam veteran whose call for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing from Iraq helped rally Democrats for the election, had appeared to be the underdog to Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democrats' whip.

Hoyer, at a news conference Tuesday, said he still expected to win and that, despite Pelosi's anticipated endorsement of her friend Murtha, "Nancy Pelosi and I will work very closely together in the future. Why, because both of us care about the objectives of our party."

The politicking over leadership posts happened Monday while GOP leaders opened a lame-duck session in which the outgoing Congress - including defeated Republicans - returned to finish work on the budget, Vietnam trade and the nomination of a defense secretary.

Legislation to normalize trade relations with Hanoi failed to win House passage late Monday, forcing Republicans to try again under different rules before President Bush visits Vietnam later in the week.

In other action, the House passed and sent to Bush a bill that could fine and imprison animal rights advocates who threaten scientists conducting animal research.

The Capitol, meanwhile, buzzed with the energy of House members-to-be and senators-in-waiting attending freshman orientation.

More than 50 incoming House freshmen spent the day in meetings focused not on big legislative items or the Iraq war but rather on office logistics and ethics - a key issue after a season of scandal that had, at least in part, led to the election of the new members.

In the Senate, a 10-person freshman class of eight Democrats, one Republican and Democratic-leaning independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont also began orientation.

Democratic Sen.-elect Jon Tester of Montana looked a little overwhelmed on his first day.

"It hasn't soaked in yet," he said. "Maybe it will never soak in."

The Capitol police weren't quite ready for Tester, a farmer with a throwback flat top haircut and fingers missing on his left hand from an old accident with a meat grinder. They asked him to empty his pockets for inspection.

"Just like at the airport, you put it all through?" Tester asked.

The officer nodded, then recognized the newcomer and waved him through.

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