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Among Democrats in Congress, Disputes on Leaders and Agenda

By Paul Kane and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 7, 2008

Fresh off their most successful election in generations, Democrats are fighting over the spoils of victory.

In the Senate, maneuvering began yesterday to exact a price from Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who caucuses with the Democrats, for his high-profile support of the GOP presidential ticket this year. Lieberman was given two weeks to mount a campaign to retain his powerful Senate committee posts.

Across the Capitol, House Democrats girded for a trio of ideological fights, including a pair of leadership contests that ignited when Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) accepted President-elect Barack Obama's offer to become White House chief of staff.

In the third, the dean of the House, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the 82-year-old chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a close friend of the auto industry, has been challenged for his post by liberal Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), an environmentalist who would pursue a much different agenda.

Lawmakers also have begun jockeying to put various causes at the front of next year's agenda, pushing for energy independence, comprehensive health care and an end to the war in Iraq.

While the battles have the potential to expose ideological differences that often were set aside during the struggle with Republicans and President Bush, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said intraparty feuds are a natural outcome of successful elections.

"Absolutely, sure, I've never seen it fail," Clyburn said. He suggested that the party would come together after the squabbles are resolved; some will be during the brief lame-duck session that begins Nov. 17.

Republicans accused Democrats of moving left after campaigning as centrists. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) questioned whether the appointment of Emanuel, known as a partisan street fighter in the House, lived up to Obama's post-partisan promise.

"Obama campaigned by masking liberal policies with moderate rhetoric to make his agenda more palatable to voters. Soon he will seek to advance these policies through a Congress that was purchased by liberal special interests such as unions, trial lawyers and radical environmentalists, and he'll have a fight on his hands when he does so," Boehner wrote in an op-ed in today's Washington Post.

But Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the minority whip, who announced his retirement from leadership yesterday, cautioned Republicans against presuming that Democrats will "overreach" with a liberal agenda. Blunt said Obama ran his campaign carefully enough to suggest that he will not fall into the Capitol Hill traps that snared President Bill Clinton in 1993.

"He's much better prepared," Blunt said of Obama.

With their victories Tuesday, Democrats have attained congressional majorities they have not had since the first years of the Clinton White House. Another Senate Republican, Gordon Smith of Oregon, conceded yesterday, bringing to six the number of seats Democrats picked up in that chamber.

Democrats will control at least 57 seats, giving them a margin large enough that they may risk Lieberman crossing the aisle to caucus with the GOP.

As he left an hour-long meeting with Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), Lieberman told reporters that the "election is over" and it is time to come together.

"We must now unite to get our economy going again and to keep the American people safe. That is exactly what I intend to do with my colleagues here in the Senate in support of our new president, and those are the standards I will use when considering the options that I have before me," Lieberman said.

Reid said no final decision will come until a planned Nov. 18 meeting of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Democrats grew increasingly angry with Lieberman, their 2000 vice presidential nominee -- who lost his Democratic Senate primary in 2006 but won reelection as an independent -- because of his criticism of Obama's foreign policy credentials while he stumped for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Senior aides suggested that revoking Lieberman's chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee would be the likely penalty. He would receive a subcommittee chairmanship on that panel and retain his subcommittee chairmanship on the Armed Services Committee, they said.

As they handle the internal disputes, Democrats also are trying to plot an agenda with the new president's top advisers. Congressional staffers are talking to Obama aides about how to structure this month's lame-duck session and the start of Congress, but have not made a formal decision on the order of bills.

Democrats say the economy will be the initial focus next year.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Democrats also expect to quickly pass bills early next year that will allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and add funds to the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which serves low-income children. Bush vetoed both proposals, but Obama has said he supports them.

Van Hollen said Congress also should push ahead on Obama's proposal for more broad-based middle-class tax cuts.

But Democrats first must referee possible races for two leadership spots. Van Hollen is in the mix for Emanuel's current job as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, considered the No. 4 leadership post, but must contend with Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), the vice chairman of the caucus. Other lawmakers, including some from the black and Hispanic caucuses, are considering bids for Emanuel's and Larson's positions.

Staff writers Kendra Marr and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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