Unexpectedly, Capitol Hill Democrats Stand Firm

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 25, 2005

Democrats were supposed to enter the 109th Congress meek and cowed, demoralized by November's election losses and ready to cut deals with Republicans who threatened further campaigns against "obstructionists." But House and Senate Democrats have turned that conventional wisdom on its head.

They have stymied President Bush's Social Security plan and held fast against judicial nominees they consider unqualified. To protest a GOP rule change, they have kept the House ethics committee from meeting. And they have slowed -- and possibly derailed -- Bush's nomination of John R. Bolton to become ambassador to the United Nations.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's decision last week to postpone a vote on Bolton for at least three weeks -- after the chairman said there were enough votes to endorse him -- was the most dramatic example yet of Democrats' persistence and resilience. Democratic senators' relentless and lawyerly attack on Bolton's record prompted Republican Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio to change his mind and demand more time to review new allegations against the nominee.

The Bolton battle is not over, but the meeting seemed to epitomize an outnumbered but stubborn party that has frustrated Republicans with its ability to deter or outflank the majority on key issues.

Democrats credit House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) with promoting solidarity through pep talks, lectures on loyalty and constant reassurances that Republicans are overplaying their hand. But the GOP has inadvertently helped, they say, by unwisely diving into the Terri Schiavo case and by starting the year with a drive to rewrite Social Security, considered sacrosanct to the Democratic Party.

Pelosi and Reid insisted that Bush's plan to create private investment accounts would diminish Social Security's long-term benefits, and even the most vulnerable Democrats from Republican-leaning states stood with them. "Rather than break Democrats apart, it brought them together," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a former Clinton White House strategist.

From there, he said, emboldened Democrats hung together when House Republicans tried to change ethics rules to their advantage, and when Senate Republicans threatened to change filibuster rules to confirm judges who Democrats oppose. And when GOP leaders tried to insert Congress into the case of Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman -- a move polls found deeply unpopular with many Americans -- Democrats had greater confidence than ever in their leaders' strategies, Emanuel said.

Republicans "were over-reaching," he said. "There was no mandate for what they were doing."

Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker said Bolton's setback is the latest sign that Democrats have decided to stand firm, cut no separate deals with the majority and pick off Republican moderates whenever possible.

"I think after an extended period of reconsideration and soul-searching [following the 2004 elections], the Democrats have decided they're going to fight back," Baker said. "The sense that they were cowed was very widespread" in January, he said, "but I think they just realized what they suffered was a defeat, not a humiliation."

The 109th Congress is still young, and Republicans have plenty of time to recover from their early setbacks. But for now, even some Republicans give the Democrats grudging credit for sticking together and staying on message.

"They've sounded to me what is a very surprisingly defiant tone, considering the outcome of the [2004] elections," said freshman Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).

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