Democrats begin organizing House and Senate leadership

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(House) Democrats are back in power in the Statehouse, with a large majority in the Senate and enough votes in the House to elect a speaker for the first time in four years. Democratic leaders pledged on Wednesday to work with Republican Governor Jim Douglas but they said their party clearly is in a position to control the legislative agenda next year.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Sound of crowd of laughing and giggling.) “Well thanks for joining us on such short notice…”

(Dillon) It was a giddy crowd of Democrats who gathered in the largest caucus room of the Statehouse, the one reserved for the majority party in the House.

(Symington) “We turned 13 formerly Republican seats into Democratic seats, none of our incumbent Democrats lost.”

(Dillon) Democrat leader Gaye Symington of Jericho said her party captured 83 seats in the 150 member House. Only 76 votes are needed to elect a speaker. So the solid Democratic majority, plus the six Progressives and one independent, give the party a comfortable margin in the important race for House speaker.

The speaker of the House has a powerful role in the Statehouse. He or she appoints the chairs of the House committees, and can direct the flow of legislation. Symington, who helped organize the Democratic comeback, says it’s too early to talk about her candidacy for speaker.

(Symington) “Today’s conversation is not about the speakership and an individual running for speaker. That’s a conversation that we will be ready for next week.”

(Dillon) If Symington is elected, she would become the first woman speaker since Consuelo Bailey held the post 50 years ago. Governor Jim Douglas has already called the Democratic leader. And Symington says she wants to work closely with his administration.

But her party is now in the driver’s seat in the Statehouse, and Symington says she expects that the administration will consult with party leaders early on to advance a combined legislative agenda.

(Symington) “Well, I think Governor Douglas is going to be challenged to live up to the words that he talks quite often about working in a bi-partisan fashion. We’re ready to do that. But we want to do that right off the bat, not talk about it in April in the second year of the biennium.”

(Dillon) The governor also faces a large Democratic majority in the Senate, where Democrats control 21 out of 30 seats. Senate President Peter Welch said voters clearly wanted a divided government.

(Welch) “The voters decided by a very strong margin to re-elect Jim Douglas. And he deserves our respect because he earned the voters’ trust. And I believe that the governor, likewise, is going to respect the voters who by a very substantial margin elected a Democratic House and Democratic Senate. So the watchword here is mutual respect.”

(Dillon) Welch and Symington said their top priorities are health care reform, energy policy and protecting Vermonters from cuts in federal spending.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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