Posted on October 31, 2008 in Washington Watch

Much attention has been paid, and justifiably so, to how the coming presidency of Barack Obama will change the way the world sees the United States, and how we see ourselves. Some have argued that the election of Barack Obama is a final statement about inclusiveness. As one commentator put it, “Now when we tell our children they can grow up to be anything they want, we’re finally telling the truth.” But the story of diversity and inclusion has been written earlier in the U.S. Senate, where the successes and failures of our inclusiveness can be seen.

The final picture of what the 111th Senate will look like is not yet clear. The contests in Georgia and Minnesota have yet to be decided (Georgia requires a runoff election, and Minnesota is so close that a mandatory recount has begun), and the Governors of Illinois and Delaware still need to fill the seats that were held by President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden. Finally, the picture could change even more should Obama select a Senator to serve as Secretary of State or any other cabinet post in his administration.

But even with this uncertainty, we can begin to sketch out what the 111th Senate will look like, as compared with the 110th Senate.

Overall

In the 110th Senate there were 51 Democratic votes (49 Democrats and two independents who caucused with them), and 49 Republicans. The new Senate will have at least 58 Democratic votes (56 Democrats and two independents) and, at minimum, 40 Republicans – with two races yet undecided. The final tally, therefore, will be no worse for the Democrats than 58-42, and could be as high as 60-40!

Since Illinois and Delaware (and even in the states where the Secretary of State picks are possible – Clinton’s New York and Kerry’s Massachusetts) all have Democratic Governors who will appoint replacements to hold the seats until the next election, the Democrats will not lose any seats.

Women

Women make up 51% of the U.S. population, but there are only 16 women in the 110th Senate (5 Republicans and 11 Democrats), while the 111th Senate will include 17 women (4 Republicans and 13 Democrats.) The change is the result of Democrat Kay Hagan beating incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen defeating Republican incumbent John Sununu. The only possible state from which a new woman Senator may emerge is Illinois, where a few prominent women are being mentioned as possible successors to Barack Obama.

African Americans

Africans Americans are the most under-represented group in the U.S. Senate. While this community makes up 12% of the U.S. population, in the 110th Senate there was only one African American Senator, Senator Barack Obama. With Obama vacating his seat, it is possible that there will be no African Americans in the 111th Senate. In fact, in all of U.S. history there have only been 3 African American Senators: Edward Brooke, a Republican from Massachusetts who served two terms from 1967-1979; Carol Moseley Braun, an Illinois Democrat who served one term from 1993-1999; and Barack Obama.

There is pressure on Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to appoint an African American to fill Obama’s seat. It is also possible that an African American could be appointed from New York, should Hillary Rodham Clinton become Secretary of State.

Hispanic Americans

Also are under-represented in the U.S. Senate are Hispanics. They make up 15% of the U.S. population and yet, in the 110th Senate there were three Hispanic Senators (Ken Salazar, D-CO; Melquiades Martinez, R-FL; and Robert Menendez, D-NJ). Since none of them were up for reelection this year, all will return for the 111th.

Asian Americans

Asian Americans comprise 4.5% population, and only two Senators are Asian Americans, both are native Hawaiians and represent that state: Democrats Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka.

American Jews

While American Jews comprise 2% of the U.S. population, there were 13 Jewish Senators in the 110th session, and that number will not change in the 111th Senate. (The only vulnerable American Jewish Senator is Minnesota Republican Norman Colman, whose election is still to be decided, is opposed by Democrat Al Franken, who is also Jewish.)

Arab Americans

New Hampshire Republican John Sununu was the only Arab American member of the 110th Senate, and his defeat means in January, 2009, for the only the second time since 1973 the U.S. Senate will have no Arab American member. However, it should be noted that Sununu’s loss was to former Governor Jeanne Shaheen, whose husband is an Arab American.

To date, the Arab American Senators have been James Abourezk (D-SD, 1973-1979); James Abdnor (R-SD, 1981-1987); George Mitchell (D-ME, 1980-1995); E. Spencer Abraham (R-MI 1995-2001); and John Sununu (R-NH, 2003-2009).

Given the shifts that are occurring in the Senate (especially with Foreign Relations Chair Joseph Biden leaving), and the possibility that other Senators may be tapped for Administration posts, the final lineup of important Senate Committee Chairs has not yet been decided. More on this will follow.

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