As Democrats Strengthen Grip on Congress, Key GOP Lawmaker Ousted

Night of few changes in legislative balance of power on higher education issues fells Ric Keller, strong Republican advocate for Pell Grants.
November 5, 2008

College leaders and lobbyists who deal with Congress won’t need to make many changes in their Rolodexes or cell phone speed dial buttons based on the results of Tuesday’s national elections. While the presidential election will mean a radical remaking of the executive branch, the basic balance of power in Congress -- generally and for the issues that matter most to higher education -- was reinforced rather than meaningfully altered Tuesday.

Democrats added to their majorities in both houses of Congress, although the exact size of their advantage was still uncertain early Wednesday morning because of outcomes still up in the air. What was clear was that Democrats fell short of the 60-vote tally that would have given them a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate.

While numerous Republican incumbents lost races nationally, all of the key members of the House and Senate education committees survived -- save one. Rep. Ric Keller of Florida, who was the senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness, lost his bid for a fifth term in Florida’s 8th district, which represents Orlando and its environs. Keller, who headed the higher education subcommittee in the 109th Congress in 2006-7, has been an outspoken advocate for increased federal support for Pell Grants -- in part, as he frequently relates, because of his own experiences.

“When I was growing up in Orlando, I lived in a one-bedroom home with my mother, grandmother, brother and sister,” he told Inside Higher Ed in a 2006 interview. “Five people, one bedroom. I worked as a busboy, a dishwasher and a short-order cook to save money for school. But even with my savings, student loans, and financial help from family and friends, I still didn’t have enough money to go to college. Without the Pell Grant program, I don’t know if I ever would have had the chance to go to college and get my law degree.”

One other member of the House education committee, Rep. Randy Kuhl of New York, appeared to have lost his seat to Eric Massa, a former House aide. A few other Republicans who are influential in higher education policy survived Election Day challenges that had been seen as significant. Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana held on to his seat, as did Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Several first-term Democrats on the committee who had been seen as potentially vulnerable also held their seats in the House.

Keller’s departure aside, the composition of the House and Senate education committees is more likely to change -- if it changes at all -- because of factors unrelated to the election. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has been in poor health but has vowed to return to Congress and help Barack Obama accomplish his goals for education and other social programs (see related article here).

The Senate education panel will have to fill one key seat -- that currently held by the president-elect.


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