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Democrats Find Lessons In GOP Reign

From left, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.); Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.); Sen. Harry M. Reid (Nev.), in line to be the new majority leader; and incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) celebrated Democrats' victories Tuesday.
From left, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.); Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.); Sen. Harry M. Reid (Nev.), in line to be the new majority leader; and incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) celebrated Democrats' victories Tuesday. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

"They're under great pressure to placate the base, to be hard-line and in some ways to pay back the Republicans," said former senator Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), the last Democratic Senate majority leader. "But they're also under tremendous pressure to produce and show they can govern. Finding the balance, that's going to be the big challenge."

"It's one thing to oppose and obstruct. It's another to try to govern and legislate," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), a moderate Republican who is urging bipartisan cooperation. "How they set in gear the motions for governing and legislating will clearly set the tone for the duration."

The ranks of the new Democratic leadership will include Reid, who once called Bush a "loser" and a "liar"; Pelosi, who bitterly remembers the power shift to the Republicans; and a new Democratic Caucus chairman, Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who confronted Gingrich's revolution as an aide in the Clinton White House.

"Newt ran in and said, 'I'm basically the prime minister,' " Emanuel recalled. "We didn't do that. Nancy said we won an election. The president won an election. We have to respect the results of both 2004 and 2006."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, agreed: "We should always be mindful that there was a little bit of God and a lot of bit of luck here. A 4,000-vote shift and we would have four new senators, not the U.S. Senate."

If all voters see is interest-group politics and "a lot of shouting," Schumer added, "our victory could be ephemeral . . . more ephemeral than Gingrich's one was. Everyone has to be cognizant of the fact that keeping the majority helps all of us achieve far more of our goals than if we undermine it."

But there are limits to such sentiments. In the 1990s, Republicans shifted the number of committee seats allotted to the majority and minority parties to virtually ensure that no cross-party collaboration would be needed to draft and pass legislation. When asked whether she may change those ratios as a goodwill gesture, Pelosi last week snapped, "I don't see a scenario where there is going to be much appetite for that."

And regardless of leaders' intent, conservative Democrats worry that Democratic old bulls, returning to chair committees after so long in the minority, could drive a partisan agenda. Some fear that Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), at the helm of the education panel, and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, may be too quick to pick fights before Democrats can cement their gains.

"We increased our market share by going where the market was, to moderate, even Republican districts," said Rep. John S. Tanner (Tenn.), a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, which has grown to become one of the largest House Democratic factions. "If we're going to hold and consolidate that, we have to understand the reality that the face of the Democratic Caucus has changed from where it was in late '80s and early '90s."

Similar dynamics may be at play in the Senate, where Democrats will hold a one-vote majority. The incoming class of senators includes two economic populists in Reps. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), a classic centrist with a slender mandate in Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), and a cantankerous conservative in Jim Webb (D-Va.).

"It's going to be an interesting year," quipped one Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Once Democrats have exhausted their consensus agenda, a legislative priority list they call "6 for '06," they will have to decide whether they need to become more ambitious -- balancing the budget, overhauling immigration policy, or tackling problems of poverty and the uninsured, for instance -- or focus on the nuts and bolts of governance to prove competence ahead of the 2008 campaign.


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