By JIM KUHNHENN
The Associated Press
Thursday, October 26, 2006; 4:14 AM
WASHINGTON -- It's been only four years since Senate Democrats last savored the taste of majority rule, an 18-month fling with power that bears little resemblance to what Democrats will confront if they win control of the Senate on Nov. 7.
"There would be a lot of pressure on the Democrats in the Senate to produce, as there should be pressure," said Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat seeking re-election.
No one would feel that pressure more than Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and the dozen new Democratic chairmen who would take over the key oversight, legislative and spending committees of the Senate.
Producing legislation has not been a recent Democratic priority. Instead, Democrats mostly have worked to block President Bush and his Republican allies in Congress, even during their short-lived Senate majority in 2001-2002.
Back then, there was no war in Iraq, the House was in Republican hands and Bush was at the height of his popularity. What's more, they didn't win their majority in the voting booth. They seized it when Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont decided to leave the GOP and become an independent.
Today, Iraq death tolls are mounting, public approval ratings for Congress and the president are plunging, and voters are telling pollsters they want Democrats in charge.
In that environment, Democrats say they're ready to trade in their opposition tactics for compromise. As a starting point, Democrats are touting a "Six for '06" agenda of domestic initiatives that is designed to attract some Republican support _ from increasing the minimum wage to revamping the Medicare prescription drug benefit to expanding federally backed stem cell research.
Late last month, Reid called assistant Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky with a proposal to work in a more bipartisan fashion. The conversation was brief, and both agreed to meet again after the elections, aides to the leaders said. But it was significant because McConnell, in line to become Republican leader of the Senate next year, and Reid are both skilled infighters, well-schooled in the obstructionist tricks of the Senate.
For Democrats, the offer recognizes that no matter the outcome of the election, Bush would be in the final two years of his presidency and Republicans might be more amenable to cutting legislative deals with Democrats.
"The president is a lame duck, that is a fact," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. "One question is how Republicans on the Hill are going to deal with that."
Bush on Wednesday said he still intends to achieve his presidential goals of overhauling immigration laws, Social Security and the tax code and was optimistic that Republicans would retain control of both chambers of Congress.
"They're dancing in the end zone," Bush said of Democrats. "They just hadn't scored the touchdown."
Win or lose, the Democrats' compromising tone recognizes a fact of life in the 100-member Senate: Because 41 senators can block a vote with a filibuster, any substantive bill needs 60 votes to pass.
Those in charge of seeking such compromises _ the would-be chairmen of the Senate's top committees _ are long-serving Democratic lawmakers. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, elected in 1958 before four of his Senate colleagues were even born, would be in line to take over the powerful Appropriations Committee. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, elected four years later, could be chairman of the Commerce Committee.
Many come from the party's liberal wing _ Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts would chair the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont would head the Judiciary Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan would be in charge of Armed Services, and Barbara Boxer of California is in line to take charge of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Others are Western or Northern Plains moderates such as Max Baucus of Montana, the would-be chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee, or Kent Conrad of North Dakota, who would take charge of the Budget Committee.
A few harbor presidential ambitions _ Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware would chair the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut could be in line to take over the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts would likely chair the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.
If re-elected, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is running as an independent, would return to claim the chairmanship of the Homeland Security panel. Lieberman reiterated Monday that he would caucus with the Democrats.
Many of these Democrats say they will confront the Bush administration with aggressive investigations.
"The institution has not functioned in its historical role of oversight," Kennedy said. "That's going to be very important. That's just a given."
Leahy would likely lead hearings into the administration's use of military tribunals, warrantless eavesdropping and the constitutional power of the president.
"I don't want to go to the other extreme when (Republicans) had 50 hearings an hour with the Clinton administration," he said, but added: "You're going to see real follow-through."
After the elections, the Senate also could be less ideological. If Democrats take control, winners could include such moderates as Robert Casey in Pennsylvania, Jon Tester in Montana, Harold Ford in Tennessee, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Jim Webb in Virginia.
"Ideologically, there will be more friends coming," said Nelson, one of the more conservative Democrats in the Senate. "The center will have a great deal of influence."
The war in Iraq is not on Democrats' "Six for '06" agenda, but it will be a dominant issue in the new Congress. Democrats, whose election-year strategy has been to criticize Bush's war policy, will seek to shift the war strategy to emphasize getting the troops out.
"If the administration listens to the American public and they listen to their general officers in the field, they will change," said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a West Point graduate who joins Levin and Biden as the leading military and foreign policy voices among Senate Democrats. "They will be looking for a bipartisan, cooperative approach to deal with a very serious issue."
On the domestic front, Kennedy would likely lead the effort to raise the minimum wage and revisit the prescription drug plan for seniors. "I look forward to a very active period," he said.
Baucus, as chairman of Finance, will have to find a middle ground on tax legislation, starting with modifications to the estate tax.
Even as they work to pass legislation, Democrats would also be pushing legislative ideas that don't stand a chance of passage but would distinguish the party from Republicans in the 2008 elections. Health care is one such issue.
"My own sense would be to move toward a Medicare-for-all system," Kennedy said. "We can raise this over this period of time and then have Democratic candidates raising this as an issue in 2008."