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Women, Latinos: Record numbers in Congress

By many measures, 2012 saw the most diverse electorate in history turn out to the polls. 2013, as a result, will see the most diverse U.S. Congress in history assume office.

Latino-Americans and women played a decisive role in yesterday's election, voting by wide margins to reelect President Obama (71 percent and 55 percent, respectively, according to exit polls.) And when the 113th Congress assumes office in January, both groups will be represented in record numbers on Capitol Hill, leaving them poised to play an equally decisive role in shaping the agenda of the years ahead.

America is changing. And from the demographics of the national electorate to the makeup of Congress, the evidence is everywhere.

The new Congress will include 20 female senators, up from 17 female senators today, and a staggering tenfold increase from the two female senators who held office 20 years ago. New female faces on Capitol Hill come January will include Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin, who will also be the first openly gay member of the Senate, Hawaii's Mazie Hirono, the first Asian-American woman to serve in the Senate, and Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran and triple amputee who ousted a bete-noire of liberals, Joe Walsh from Illinois' 8th Congressional district.

And had several of Tuesday's races produced a different outcome, women in Congress could have seen their ranks swell even further - Republican Senate candidates Linda McMahon in Connecticut and Heather Wilson in New Mexico were defeated by male opponents. And in the House, GOP candidate Mia Love, who would have been the first black female Republican in Congress, failed to oust Rep. Jim Matheson from his Utah house seat.

But despite the scattered losses, the net outcome is being greeted with elation by women's groups and at least one of the victorious female candidates.

Last night was "an amazing milestone," said EMILY's List, a group that works to elect pro-choice women. "The gains women have made this election are real, and they're here to stay...On critical issues like equal pay and access to health care, more women in Congress means an agenda that's better for American families."

Yesterday, on "CBS This Morning", Massachusetts Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren, who defeated incumbent GOP Sen. Scott Brown, offered an enthusiastic "Hubba-hubba!" when she was asked about the prospect of more women in Congress.

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Asked whether more women walking the halls of Congress is a good thing and whether their presence will make a difference, Warren minced no words: "Yes and yes...it's time. Come on - there was still, this year, a big debate over equal pay for equal work. No. It's time. It's time."

But she didn't promise to reinvent the wheel - when Warren was asked whether women simply know something about politics that men don't, she smiled, obviously enjoying the question - and then demurred: "Interesting question. I don't know."

And the record number of women in Congress is no accident - at a press conference the day after the election, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who helmed the Senate Democrats' campaign arm, explained, "We recruited and nominated the most Democratic women ever...I believe that is a great thing for our country."

Latino-American groups were similarly enthused by the outcome of Tuesday's election, in which numerous Hispanic candidates across the country cruised to victory. When the 113th Congress is seated in January, there will be three Hispanic senators - returning Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., will be joined by GOP newcomer Ted Cruz of Texas. All three men are of Cuban descent. And had Arizona Democrat Richard Carmona been successful in his race against Senator-elect Jeff Flake, Capitol Hill would have housed yet another Latino senator.

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In the House, a record 28 Hispanic legislators will have seats in the 113th Congress, including Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro, the twin brother of 2012 Democratic National Convention keynote speaker and San Antonio mayor Julian Castro (who, for his part, was the first Hispanic keynote speaker at a Democratic convention.)

In short, it has been a heady election season for Latinos in American political life, who have seen their clout accrue as surely and quickly as their share of the national electorate.

"The Latino giant is wide-awake, cranky, and it's taking names," Eliseo Medina, a leader of the Service Employees International Union, told reporters. "Latinos were the key vote in electing a president, and now we are a part of history."

Arturo Vargas, head of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, in an interview with CBSNews.com, described the bevy of incoming Latino legislators as a "historic number," adding, "One of the challenges is that the majority of those Latinos will be in the minority party [in the House]. There will still be a handful in the majority party."

Vargas believes the bipartisan influx of Hispanic legislators could help expedite action on comprehensive immigration reform and other issues of concern to the Latino community. "I hope there will be some bipartisan cooperation among Hispanics in Congress on issues of common concern...My hope is that immigration reform is dealt with as soon as possible. Not only will Democrats feel they have a mandate, I also think some savvy Republicans will realize, 'We've got to get this issue off our back - we're never going to change direction with Hispanics until we put this issue behind us.'"

Vargas predicted that the next decade will continue apace, adding even more Hispanic legislators to the halls of Congress. He identified several Congressional districts that could have Hispanic representation soon, including the seat currently held by Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., who fended off Dominican-American primary challenger Adriano Espaillat in 2012 but, at 82 years of age, is expected to retire before too long. Espaillat, if he eventually succeeds Rangel, would become the first Dominican-American in Congress.

The gradual accumulation of women and minorities in Congress will reach a tipping point in January, when, for the first time in history, white men will no longer comprise the majority of the Democratic Caucus - the first time in American history a major party's Capitol Hill presence has not been dominated by white men.

By contrast, in the 1950s, Congress was almost exclusively a white, male enterprise. And by the 1980s, only 14 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Republicans on Capitol Hill were women or minorities, according to a study from David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

The change since then seems like a big deal - and in the eyes of many women's and minority groups, it is - but Congress has a long way to go if it will ever become an accurate cross-section of the American public.

More than half of Americans are women, and even after recent gains, well under half of Congress is comprised of female legislators. And in the 2010 census, Latinos were 16 percent of the U.S. population. Come January, Latinos will still comprise less than 6 percent of Congress.

Proponents of Congressional diversity say numbers like that provide a sobering commentary on the work left undone. The changing face of Congress "is a reflection of changing demographics," explained Vargas. "But in fact it's not reflective enough."

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