tampabay.com

State's senators gain power in new session

By WES ALLISON and ANITA KUMAR
Published February 7, 2007


WASHINGTON - Thanks to the change in party control, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson's lot has improved dramatically.

And Florida's Republican senator, Mel Martinez, isn't in bad shape, either.

The Democratic takeover of the Senate launched Nelson into the upper ranks of key committees overseeing the day's hottest topics, and also landed him a seat on the Intelligence Committee, which is crucial in the war on terror.

Martinez, meanwhile, was selected to be the public face of his party at a time when Republicans are trying to find their message and regain power. The new job also gives him a spot on the Senate GOP leadership team - a prime perch for advancing his agenda, including immigration reform.

Meanwhile, Nelson and Martinez vow to keep working closely on Florida issues, such as blocking oil drilling off the state's coast and restoring the Everglades.

Bill Nelson

Nelson, 64, easily won re-election in the fall, and he has jumped into his second term with an eye toward building his credentials on foreign and military affairs.

The new Democratic control pushed Nelson toward the front of the line in the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, and he's now chairman of three important subcommittees: international operations; strategic forces; and space, aeronautics and related sciences, which oversees NASA.

He is using his new platform to push for talks with Syria and Iran, which the Bush administration rejects. In December, he earned international headlines - and drew the ire of the White House - by meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.

"Being on (those committees) has me right in the middle of the major issue that's in front of us, which is Iraq," Nelson said.

Mel Martinez

Martinez, 60, began his third year in the Senate with a significant boost to his already-high profile when President Bush handpicked him as general chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Martinez will focus on raising money and promoting the party's message around the nation during the two-year election cycle, in which the Republicans hope to take back Congress while keeping control of the White House.

As a former member of Bush's Cabinet and the nation's first Cuban-American senator, Martinez already had considerable cachet. He also has top committee assignments, including energy and natural resources; banking, housing and urban affairs; and, new this year, armed services.

There's no doubt his new duties elevate his profile.

"It's going to give me an opportunity to play a more vital role in helping ... shape policy, and I think from that standpoint there is a real benefit," Martinez said.

Fast Facts:

 

Key votes

Raise the minimum wage, coupled with tax breaks for small business

Nelson: Yes Martinez: Yes

 

Expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research

Nelson: Yes Martinez: No

 

Create military tribunals for trying suspected terrorists

Nelson: Yes Martinez: Yes

 

Support president's nomination of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court

Nelson: No Martinez: Yes

 

Make it illegal to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion

Nelson: No Martinez : Yes