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Freshman Senators Settle Into 'The Upper House'

The early morning sun strikes the U.S. Capitol on the day before midterm elections in November 2006.
The early morning sun strikes the U.S. Capitol on the day before midterm elections in November 2006.

In 2006, voters angry about Iraq and frustrated with President George W. Bush sent a new class of senators to Washington.

In the years since that election, veteran Washington correspondent Terence Samuel has shadowed the Senate's 2007 freshman class. His new book, The Upper House, describes the day-to-day workings of the Senate -- where change happens very, very slowly.

Samuel focused his book on three Democrats -- John Tester of Montana, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Jim Webb of Virginia -- and Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee.

"In some ways, it was a recall election," Samuel tells NPR's David Greene. "In 2006 you had this massive turnaround ... I think the switch in the control of the Congress was essentially about Iraq."

Upper House
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The new senators arrived in Washington ready to enact change, but quickly encountered the challenging reality of working in a place like the Senate -- with its arcane rules and its slow, incremental pace.

Klobuchar was frustrated to find that just one senator -- James Inhofe (R-OK) -- could single-handedly block an amendment that she wanted to introduce into the energy bill.

"There was nothing she could do," Samuel says. "She tried to track him down. ... She said, 'I've tried to be nice, I've tried to be firm.' And in frustration one day, she just went to the floor and expressed her absolute shock that one senator could block this from happening."

Samuel followed the new U.S. legislators from the floor of the Senate all the way back to town hall meetings in their home states. He says it was interesting to track senators who hadn't -- as they say in the Senate -- "gone purple" yet.

"It's the royal purple, because there's always staff around you," Samuels explains. "You walk down the hall and doors open. But there is some grunt work involved in the Senate, and that job essentially falls to the freshman class of the majority."

It's a difficult transition for politicians who are used to being in charge in their home states. Corker was formerly the mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., and said: "You mean I campaigned 25 months and two days to do this?" He lamented that "about half of what we do in the Senate is absolutely useless."

Veteran D.C. journalist Terence Samuel is a senior correspondent for <em>The American Prospect</em> and editor-at-large at <em>The Root.</em>
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Veteran D.C. journalist Terence Samuel is a senior correspondent for <em>The American Prospect</em> and editor-at-large at <em>The Root.</em>

Corker had the added frustration of being in the Senate's Republican minority -- so his party didn't control the agenda. But Samuel says the "real power" in the Senate lies with the minority because they have "the power to say no" -- a power that the Republicans exercised frequently in the early part of 2007.

Today, Corker has a reputation as someone who works across the aisle, and Samuel says that reflects his experience as a first-term senator with a largely Democratic, change-oriented freshman class.

"This was the class that had been charged with changing the dynamics in Washington," Samuel says.

There's a sense in the book that when the Senate is moving slowly, it is, in theory at its most successful.

"In some ways, the Senate was intended to be an obstructionist institution," Samuel acknowledges. "It was a reflection of the mistrust that the founders had in how well we would govern ourselves."

He says the people who thrive in the Senate are the politicians who learn to live with frustration -- in a place where "gridlock seems like success."

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