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After losing House, Democrats will try new strategy: bipartisanship

By Shailagh Murray
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.

Obama wants to continue the public education reforms that he began with federal stimulus funding, while many GOP lawmakers are eager to protect the No Child Left Behind testing requirements, one of President George W. Bush's signature domestic policy achievements. The upcoming reauthorization debate could provide an ideal opportunity for bipartisan dealmaking, especially given incoming House speaker John A. Boehner's central role in crafting the original bill.

One urgent concern for lawmakers in both parties is the country's bleak fiscal outlook, stemming from heavy government spending and ballooning retirement costs. House Republican leaders said that immediately after the health-care vote they will debate spending cuts, targeting specific programs such as public television. But bigger battles loom this spring, when temporary funding for virtually all domestic spending will expire on March 4 and Congress is forced to raise the debt ceiling, or else risk default by the Treasury, a pivotal moment that could arrive later in the spring.

In the past, the House has approved the debt ceiling as part of the budget resolution, a vote that typically draws unanimous Republican opposition. But as part of rules changes proposed by GOP House leaders, raising the limit would have to be approved in the House as a stand-alone bill.

Tea party activists have singled out this moment as a make-or-break show of solidarity against further deficit spending.

Democrats and some Republicans, including leaders in both chambers, are so concerned that the debt-ceiling vote could fail, at least in the House, that some lawmakers considered adding it to the tax bill that passed during the lame-duck session. But Democrats also consider the issue a key test of conservative resolve, given the potential for default that could cripple world financial markets.

Another Democratic priority is immigration. One of the most powerful images of the lame-duck session was a Senate visitors gallery crowded with first-generation American college students, who held hands as lawmakers rejected the DREAM Act. The bill would have provided a path to citizenship for people who entered the country illegally with their parents before they turned 16.

Republicans complained about the timing of the bill, but Democrats took note that GOP candidates lost closely contested Senate seats in California, Colorado and Nevada, all states where Hispanic voters are a potent force. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a leading proponent of the DREAM Act, said some GOP opponents could support the legislation under different circumstances.

"Some of those who voted against it and spoke against it, and were the angriest over it being offered, have told me they want to sit down and talk, and I want to hold them to it," he said.

On the fiscal front in particular, the contrast between public rhetoric and behind-the-scenes negotiating is stark. Some Republicans are talking with key Democrats about beginning a deficit-reduction effort that could define the next year and become one of the dominant themes of Obama's reelection campaign.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said he urged Obama in December to lead a bipartisan deficit-reduction effort.

"You can't reach conclusion with just members of Congress," Conrad said.

Obama's direct intervention was crucial to the success of the lame-duck session. The president, along with Vice President Biden, worked with Republicans on the tax-cut bill and the nuclear arms treaty. Democrats took note in recent weeks that the White House lured labor union support for the South Korea trade pact, potentially blunting Democratic opposition on Capitol Hill, although major unions such as the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers remain opposed to the agreement.

"When the president intervened and sought to negotiate directly with the other side in a way that they thought they were being negotiated with, as opposed to being humored or tolerated, there's hope that relationship can continue in the future," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a moderate who is often a swing vote on major bills.

"Minority and majority leaders have to negotiate and do all those things they can, but there are going to be those times when the president has to intervene."

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