After losing House, Democrats will try new strategy: bipartisanship

The new Congress opens its first session, and representatives elect John Boehner as House speaker.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 12:19 AM

The Democratic wish list for the 112th Congress looks nothing like the bold liberal agenda the party pushed over the past two years.

Democratic leaders say they could take up the cause of deficit reduction, urge a free-trade agreement with South Korea and advocate for an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

All of these issues have something in common: They will require support from lawmakers in both parties to have any hope of passing. Each of the measures stalled during the previous Congress, as Democrats used their majorities in the House and Senate to advance health-care reform, Wall Street accountability and other priorities over the objections of Republicans.

They no longer have that luxury.

Democrats presided over one of most productive congressional sessions in decades, but the brisk pace and their strategy of rolling over Republicans instead of engaging them came at a heavy cost. Many voters thought Democrats had overreached and were governing by fiat, and they responded in November by giving Republicans control of the House and narrowing the Democratic hold on the Senate.

Now, Democrats will try a different approach - attempting to re-create the unexpected cooperation of December's lame-duck session, in which the parties got beyond their rhetoric to pass a tax-cut bill, extend unemployment benefits and ratify a nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Lawmakers approved more bipartisan legislation last month than at any other time in the long stretch since President Obama took office.

The challenge for Democrats will be to persuade Republicans to maintain that fragile detente even as the emboldened GOP takes power in the House and begins to pursue its own agenda - one that includes repealing the health-care law and cutting government programs.

The lame-duck session "is probably more indicative of the next two years than the last two years," because both parties recognize that they have a stake in what Congress produces, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), a senior member of the Democratic leadership.

"When any political party is totally out of power and discounted, it's very easy to sit on the sidelines," he noted. Winning elections sparks "the responsibility gene," he said. "You can't avoid it."

Democrats are already acutely aware of their diminished position. While House Republicans are spending this week changing procedural rules, reading the Constitution on the House floor and scheduling their first major vote, a Jan. 12 showdown on whether to repeal the health-care legislation, House Democrats tried to generate interest in a news conference to announce two low-level leadership appointments.

A similar partisan breakdown in Congress in 2001 and 2002 - when Republicans controlled the House and Democrats controlled the Senate by a single vote - produced a series of far-reaching bills, including the No Child Left Behind legislation, the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate accountability overhaul and the McCain-Feingold campaign finance measure.

No Child Left Behind is due to be reauthorized this year and presents the type of opportunity that was absent in a Democratic-led Congress, with its close ties to powerful teacher unions.

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