RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Senate convenes today for the first time in this new year. And two new members will be sworn in right off the bat. Minnesota lieutenant governor Tina Smith takes Al Franken's seat. And Doug Jones will be the first Democrat sworn into an Alabama Senate seat in 25 years. They join the Senate as Congress gets ready for midterm elections this fall. We're joined in the studio by NPR's Kelsey Snell. Hey, Kelsey.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi.
MARTIN: Two new Democratic senators. They're going to make the Republicans' margin in the Senate that much smaller, right?
SNELL: Right. So now we are going from a 52-48 Republican majority to a 51-48 majority - or 51-49 - remembering that Tina Smith is filling the seat of another Democrat, Al Franken.
SNELL: The one person we're watching the most is going to be Doug Jones. When he was elected, there were a number of Republican officials who called on him to act like a Republican because he's representing a lot of Republicans in Alabama. We don't actually expect him to do that. But there will be a lot of talk about that once he gets started. Democrats are also hoping that his addition gives them the space to tell Republicans that they need to come to their side on things like spending and DACA, which is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration issue. And, you know, they are hoping - Democrats are hoping - there will be a lot more pressure for Republicans to wheel and deal this year than they saw last year.
MARTIN: So where's the wheeling and dealing going to happen? I mean, when you think about the Senate more generally, what are the primary items on their agenda when they get back to work?
SNELL: The big thing that we're watching first - this idea of spending caps. So the Republicans and Democrats started conversations almost as early as Thanksgiving about a way to increase spending levels for the rest of the fiscal year. That may sound like not that big of a deal, but Republicans have been resisting the idea of funding major spending programs on the domestic side, things that people rely on every day. And Democrats want to make sure that those are funded at the same level as military priorities. So the hope is that they will reach a deal sometime maybe this week or next week, so they can pass a new spending bill, since it's unfinished business left over from last year.
MARTIN: So 2018 is also going to be the last year for the Senate's longest-serving member. Republican Orrin Hatch is set to retire. How's that going to change the Senate?
SNELL: Yeah. Today is actually the 40th anniversary of the day that Hatch was sworn into office in 1977.
SNELL: So it is a big departure. He has been a mainstay of a lot of, again, bipartisan negotiations. He helped write the Children's Health Insurance Program. He's done a lot of religious freedom work. And he was an architect of that big tax plan that passed at the end of the year. His departure really does make a big difference because it's an open seat. We're seeing that former governor and former vice presidential candidate Mitt Romney may be throwing his hat into the ring. He just changed his location on his Twitter page to say that he is in Utah...
MARTIN: Yeah, I saw that.
SNELL: ...Reminding people that he's in Utah.
MARTIN: Changed from Massachusetts to Utah.
MARTIN: So that's an indicator.
SNELL: So reminding people he's available. But he also is one of many powerful Republican chairmen who retired, leaving open seats where Democrats hope they can make some challenges and pick up more seats, particularly in the House, where they are hoping for a wave election this year.
MARTIN: Are we really talking about midterm elections in January?
SNELL: I know. It's - what? - third day of the year.
SNELL: And we're already thinking about November.
MARTIN: Yes. Do it. That's what we do.
SNELL: There are a lot of people who have been thinking about this for some time. Democrats really do hope that this is a year they can turn over a lot of seats, particularly in the suburbs and areas in California. There are eight open seats - well, eight contested seats - in California that Democrats really think they could pick up. And we're also looking at places like New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where they're hoping that they could retake control of the House.
MARTIN: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thanks so much, Kelsey.
SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.