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By Barry Massey, The Associated Press
SANTA FE— New Mexico will end up with less influence in Congress because of the political scramble by candidates running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Pete Domenici.
When a new Congress convenes after the 2008 elections, New Mexico will have lost more than two decades of seniority accumulated by its House delegation. All three incumbents— Republicans Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce and Democrat Tom Udall— are giving up their seats to run for the Senate.
Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman will remain as the state's only incumbent member of Congress in January 2009. The state will have three freshman House members.
Domenici, the longest-serving senator in New Mexico history, is retiring at the end of his term because he has an incurable brain disease.
In Congress, seniority matters. It plays a role in determining the committee assignments of members. That's important because committees are where much of the work of Congress occurs in drafting and amending legislation.
With service over many years, members can also hone political skills in the legislative process and build trust among their colleagues— an important factor in getting things accomplished in Congress or blocking proposals that could hurt New Mexico.
Senior members typically land seats on the most influential committees. Long-serving members move up to become chairmen or ranking minority members of subcommittees and full committees.
Wilson and Udall were elected in 1998. Wilson won a special election in June of that year to complete the term of the late Republican Rep. Steve Schiff, who died in office. Pearce was elected to the House in 2002.
In the current Congress, Udall landed a plum committee assignment— a seat on the Appropriations Committee, which allocates money for programs, agencies and projects.
Domenici serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, a position he's used to safeguard the interests of New Mexico's extensive network of federal facilities, such as Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.
Wilson serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It's a highly coveted assignment, because the committee deals with a wide range of issues, from telecommunications and energy to public health. She is a member of the House Intelligence Committee and the ranking Republican on one of its subcommittees.
Pearce is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee and the ranking Republican on its subcommittee on energy and mineral resources.
The situation facing the state is not without precedent, however. The 1968 elections led to the ouster of both of the state's incumbent House members, leaving the state with two freshmen when the new Congress convened. Republican Manuel Lujan beat Democrat Thomas Morris, and Republican Ed Foreman defeated Democrat E.S. "Johnny" Walker. Lujan went on to serve in the House for two decades. New Mexico gained a third seat in Congress in the early 1980s.
Even with the loss of four of its five incumbents in Congress, New Mexico won't be left defenseless.
Bingaman, who was elected to the Senate in 1982, has both seniority and important committee assignments in watching out for home state interests in Congress. He is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which handles energy policy and public lands issues— important areas for New Mexico. He also serves on the Finance Committee, which deals with taxes as well as Social Security and health care issues such as Medicare. He is a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Brian Sanderoff, an Albuquerque pollster and veteran observer of New Mexico politics, says the loss of seniority is "bound to have an impact" on the state. "We've been blessed with a lot of members of Congress lately with lots of clout and leadership. Four of them are giving it up," he says.
The good news, he says, is that the state's next senator will likely be "experienced in the ways of Washington." The high-profile candidates are the three members of Congress and Democrat Martin Chávez, the mayor of Albuquerque and a former state senator.