Democrats Find Lessons In GOP Reign
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Democrats preparing to take control of Congress for the first time in over a decade are looking to the Republican takeover in 1995 as an object lesson of what to emulate and what to avoid. They hope to match the legislative energy of the Newt Gingrich era while avoiding at all costs the partisan pitfalls that eventually soured voters on the GOP.
The majority party that takes control of the House and Senate in January will look significantly different from the party that was swept from power in the 1994 elections. The old-guard liberals and staunch union supporters in control then are giving way to a new generation of moderates with more temperate legislative ambitions.
Democrats last week picked up six seats in the Senate and at least 28 seats in the House en route to victory. Eleven of those House districts were solidly Republican in the 2004 presidential election, while new Democratic senators from Montana, Missouri, Virginia and Ohio will have to be mindful of their traditionally Republican constituents.
Led by a feisty Nevada senator and the first woman in history to claim the House speaker's post, the long-banished Democrats hope to prove their bona fides as lawmakers and challenge a president from the other party to accept their agenda, a game plan taken straight from the Gingrich era's "Contract With America." They also intend to challenge President Bush to change course in Iraq and consider their demands for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
But Democrats say they will avoid the overreaching, arrogance and rancorous partisanship that left them virtually powerless on Capitol Hill and spawned an era of political corruption and influence-peddling. Democratic leaders vowed last week to pass major ethics reforms early in the new 110th Congress, and to offer Republicans seats at the negotiating table and ample opportunities to amend bills on the floor -- opportunities that were denied their party.
"What they did was very effective in pulling up all the ladders for any other party to gain the majority," incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week of the Gingrich revolutionaries. "They just shut the doors to debate on the floor, to amendments coming, to even how special orders [speeches] were conducted. Everything they were effective in using to gain the majority they shut down."
"We're going to do the opposite," she pledged.
"This country has spoken loudly and clearly," Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), slated to become the new Senate majority leader in January, told a Capitol Hill rally last week. "There must be a change of direction in Iraq. We have to have results in doing something to make health care more affordable and more available. We have to do something to create energy independence."
House Democratic leaders have put forward an ambitious opening salvo for January, a 100-hour legislative blitz that includes raising the minimum wage, boosting alternative-energy research and repealing tax breaks for oil companies. They also want to beef up seaport screening, expand college tuition assistance, boost stem cell research and allow the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices under Medicare.
House Democrats also hope to approve rules changes to limit the influence of lobbyists, offer the minority party more input on legislation, curb home-state pet projects in spending bills and, possibly, give the District of Columbia voting rights on the House floor.
But once the 100 hours or so pass, pressure will mount on Democrats to confront what many liberals see as the misdeeds of Bush and the Republican Party. The party's base is clamoring for Democrats to repeal tax cuts skewed to the affluent, to revisit the new law authorizing military tribunals for terrorism suspects and to investigate the run-up to the Iraq invasion.
To some Democrats, such calls raise memories of the aggressive -- and ultimately self-destructive -- stance that House Republicans took when they stormed to power in the 1994 election and later voted to impeach President Bill Clinton, only to see Clinton acquitted in the Senate.