Among Democrats in Congress, Disputes on Leaders and Agenda

Democratic leaders are debating how to deal with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who caucuses with their party but campaigned for John McCain.
Democratic leaders are debating how to deal with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who caucuses with their party but campaigned for John McCain. (By Brendan Hoffman -- Getty Images)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 7, 2008; Page A04

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.

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