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Harry Reid to stay in top Democratic post in Senate

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Steve Marcus

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid answers questions about his re-election during a news conference at Vdara Wednesday, November 3, 2010.

Updated Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010 | 10:31 a.m.

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Smooth leadership elections left the same sheriffs heading up both party caucuses in the Senate – but there are still a few new faces in town.

There was no change in the top brass; the 112th Congress will once again feature Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid facing off against Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Both will be backed up by their current Whips – for Reid, that’s Dick Durbin of Illinois, and for McConnell, Jon Kyl of Arizona.

But there’s a little bit of shifting below that – at least on the Democrats’ side. While New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer retains his No. 3 post, he’s taking on a slightly expanded role, adding “Chair of the Democratic Policy Committee” to his existing title of Vice Chair of the Conference.

That means Schumer – aided by new deputy Debbie Stabenow of Michigan – will be responsible for a great deal of messaging out of the Senate. Creating an effective public message is an area where several Democrats say their party needs improvement, and fast-tracking positive steps will be critical as the party faces the fact that 23 of its senators will be fighting to keep their seats in 2012 – almost half the caucus.

“We must better integrate our legislative- and message-crafting functions into a central, coordinated nucleus managing policy, press and politics,” Reid wrote in a letter to senators.

The expansion of the role brings the Democrats’ policy work on the hill into closer alignment with the work of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – the only piece of the party puzzle that hasn’t get been given a new chief. Schumer led the election-focused body during the Democrats’ election boom cycles of 2006 and 2008, and the DSCC’s current chair, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, is stepping down to focus on his own re-election campaign in 2012.

With the losses posted in this year’s midterms and a president up for re-election, 2012 is not expected to be an easy cycle to steer the party through. So far, at least three senators who have been offered the position: Schumer, Mark Warner of Virginia, and Michael Bennet of Colorado – both elected in 2008 – have turned it down.

But the most interesting new face may be another class of ’08-er: Mark Begich of Alaska, who took on the party’s No. 5 post as chair of the Steering and Outreach Committee. Patty Murray of Washington remains at No. 4 as Secretary of the Conference.

Begich’s appointment is, by all appearances, a nod to the younger guard, which has been angling for a greater role in next year’s Congress.

They’ve got good reason to want it. More than 40 percent of the Democrats in the Senate are first-termers, most having been elected in the 2006 and 2008 that put Democrats in control of Congress and later, the White House.

Just about half of the Democrats coming up for re-election in 2012 (23, including the two independents who caucus with Democrats, as opposed to Republicans, who only have 10 seats in play) are first-termers as well.

In a Congress that has traditionally favored incumbents, it’s a rare occurrence to have such a pile-on of young senators. The unorthodox configuration throws a new spin into the traditional social fabric of the caucus, where more seasoned senators are used mentoring and grooming the younger generation – and a creates a new faction for Reid to factor into his leadership going forward.

The elections went smoothly and without contest in the Senate – a calm precursor to the ugly infighting that is expected from House Democrats on Wednesday. Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, a leading voice among the dwindling Blue Dog Democrats’ caucus, is planning to make good on a threat to run for the minority party’s top post – as he’d promised to do if sitting Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a bid for the position.

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