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Upper Midwest Democrats gain clout

WASHINGTON - The road to power on Capitol Hill now passes through the Upper Midwest. And there are several stops along the way. The November election handed Democrats control of the U.S. House and Senate for the first time in a dozen years. It al...

WASHINGTON - The road to power on Capitol Hill now passes through the Upper Midwest.

And there are several stops along the way.

The November election handed Democrats control of the U.S. House and Senate for the first time in a dozen years. It also elevated more federal lawmakers from the region into influential positions this year than at any time in recent memory.

That left Rep. Jim Oberstar shaking his head in amazement. Now in his 33rd year in Congress, Oberstar couldn't recall a similar scenario during his tenure.

"Never. Haven't seen that before," he said while sitting in his spacious Capitol Hill office.

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Oberstar, of northeastern Minnesota's 8th District, has taken control of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee just as several of his area colleagues similarly have ascended.

New Democratic leaders from North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa are poised to put their thumbprint on a host of topics important to the region. The list includes farm, energy, highway funding and budget issues.

In all, members from those congressional delegations are heading at least seven House and Senate panels for the next two years - and longer if their party retains control.

The new leadership posts, based largely on seniority, came at a good time, legislators said. For instance, the House and Senate agriculture committees are stacked with Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota lawmakers as Congress is preparing to write new federal farm legislation.

Good for farmers

Freshman Rep. Tim Walz is still getting his bearings in Washington, but he predicted area farmers won't get shortchanged in the 2007 farm bill.

"I think it's probably the best we've ever had," the 1st District Democrat said of committee representation.

Walz will serve on fellow Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson's House Agriculture Committee, while Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar have seats on the Senate Agriculture Committee. That committee's chairman is Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.

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"We have a lot of clout," Klobuchar said while sitting in her temporary Capitol Hill office.

Hand on walletArea lawmakers also will have their hand on the federal government's wallet this year.

Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota said being Senate Budget Committee chairman gives him authority to dictate how much money will be spent in various areas, including federal deficit reduction. Rep. Dave Obey of northwest Wisconsin's 8th District will lead the powerful House Appropriations Committee, influencing where federal dollars are allocated.

"It means that the people who represent the region are in the room when the decisions are made," Obey said between meetings in the Capitol. "That's always helpful."

However, Obey added that progress may not be seen for a couple years as Congress' first priority is to catch up on work left from last year.

Conrad's viewsAs he thought back on his 20 years in the Senate, Conrad said the current 110th Congress has the most Midwestern lawmakers in positions of influence.

"It means probably the greatest congressional strength our part of the country has had in memory," he said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office.

Publisher's viewMidwesterners should consider their lawmakers' legislative record in office - and not necessarily what they pledge to do in the future - when assessing the new chairmanships, Ron Lippock said.

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Viewed through that prism, the new posts bode well for the region's interests, said Lippock, who tracks Congress as director of publishing for the nonpartisan CQ Press.

"At the end of the day, he's in a position to make sure his local interests are represented," Lippock said of Conrad, drawing similar conclusions about the other chairmen.

Conrad said he and other Democratic leaders face "enormous challenges," including solving budget woes and seeking permanent disaster relief assistance for farmers. The work will require help from Republicans, he said.

"I hope this time is not lost," Conrad said.

Coleman lost his chairmanship of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations when his Republican Party was swept from control on Capitol Hill. Nevertheless, Coleman said he intends to work with the new majority.

So many leaders from one region is a "unique thing," said Walter Mondale, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party patriarch and former vice president and senator.

Mondale, who was in Washington for the beginning of the new Congress, said Midwestern influence shouldn't be overlooked.

"You've got a lot of strength up there," he said of the region.

Pomeroy's viewThat doesn't mean constituents will see "old-style, pork-barrel politics," cautioned Rep. Earl Pomeroy, who has seats on Peterson's agriculture panel and the House Ways and Means Committee, which handles taxation.

The North Dakota Democrat, whose office window reveals the Capitol dome, said there will be "belt-tightening" throughout the federal budget, but the region's essential needs will be met.

"As the national policy unfolds, it will be fair to the upper Midwest on a variety of issues," he said.

"When we will have a need for agency review, if Collin Peterson, Jim Oberstar, Dave Obey call a departmental secretary, you know how fast they're going to show up on our doorstep? It's just amazing," Oberstar said, chuckling in delight after having toiled in the House minority for 12 years.

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