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Election '08 is causing a 'brain drain' on Capitol Hill

But many exiting lawmakers also bring years of experience to the Obama administration.

By Staff writer / December 18, 2008

On their way out: Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden are likely to make use of their Senate experience in Obama's administration.

Charles Dharapak/AP



The Senate is going through a brain drain, of sorts, with two senators leaving to take the top spots in the White House, two more leaving to join the cabinet, and then an assortment leaving through retirement and defeat – including the longest continuously serving Republican senator in history.

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Turnover, of course, is normal, but this year there’s a twist: both the new president and vice president are leaping straight from the Senate. The last time that happened was in 1960, with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Then add the two senators who have been nominated to join President-elect Obama’s Cabinet – Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State and Ken Salazar as Interior secretary. Usually, just one senator gets plucked for a new cabinet, notes associate Senate historian Donald Ritchie.

Another Senate insider who will be at the Obama table is former Democratic majority leader Tom Daschle, tapped to be secretary of Health and Human Services and director of the new White House Office of Health Reform.

With a big, aggressive agenda in the works as soon as Mr. Obama is inaugurated, congressional observers expect all this inside knowledge of Capitol Hill – enhanced by Rep. Rahm Emanuel’s soon-to-be role as White House chief of staff – will help pave the way to get legislation passed. Another House member, Rep. Hilda Solis (D) of California, is expected to get the Labor secretary job.

“They’ll have a lot of intel in the White House about what the feeling is up here,” says a Senate staffer. “So it probably redounds to both institutions to have this much cross-pollination.”

Under one-party Democratic rule, the administration will for the most part set the agenda, but Congress will be needed to pass the legislation. In the House, where the Democratic majority will be larger come January, the rules make it easier than in the Senate for the majority to dominate. In the Senate, 60 votes out of 100 are required to halt debate, and the Democrats fell short of that total.

Not that holding 60 seats would have guaranteed anything for the Democrats, in any event, as some senators regularly don’t move in lock step with their caucus.

But now, this is where some of the Republican departures become important. Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon lost his reelection bid, and Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska retired. All three were known to cross the aisle at times. Remaining in the “centrist” column are Maine’s two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.