By their own account, arrogance and dissension within their ranks led to their stunning defeat in 1994. After suffering for five years in the minority, House Democrats say they have learned from their mistakes.
Even though congressional elections are nearly a year away, Democrats have gone to unusual lengths to organize their government-in-waiting if, as they expect, they retake control of the House next fall. A detailed transition plan prepared by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and other lawmakers calls for extensive consultation with Republicans over the legislative agenda and work schedule and even the ratio of Democrats to Republicans on committees--something the GOP leadership has never done.
The plan also would end the Republicans' highly centralized leadership style that virtually stripped most committees of any real power to draft high-priority legislation. The Democratic leadership would continue to give the committees their marching orders, but the chairmen and the members would have substantially more leeway to write the bills as they see fit.
While dismissed as election-year posturing by leading Republicans, such talk could be another sign of the fatigue many lawmakers are feeling over the poisonous partisanship on Capitol Hill. It also underscores a striking transformation in the congressional Democratic Party over the past five years.
The once-calcified and largely liberal leadership has been forced to respond to the demands of a large number of newer and more conservative members eager to find common ground with Republicans on fiscal and social policy. The autocratic "old bulls" who once ruled the committees as their personal fiefdoms are largely gone, and many Democrats say that even if they regain the majority, their margin will be so small that they will accomplish little unless they find a way to reach across the aisle.
Vic Fazio, a former Democratic House member and leader, said that regardless of the election outcome, there will be "a much greater level of pragmatism from all corners" of the Democratic Party. "No one is talking about abandoning principle," he said, "but people are going to be a lot more . . . willing to compromise."
"There will be a true, honest effort at bipartisanship," said Cardin. "It doesn't mean the Democrats won't establish an agenda, but they will work very close with Republicans."
GOP lawmakers are dismissive of the suggestion that the Democrats might be more willing to share power if they regain control. "What they're trying to do is come back and say, 'We're not quite as bad as we were. We've learned,' " said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Frankly, I don't think anyone who has watched them this time believes that."
With the Republicans clinging to a tenuous five-seat majority, many Democrats believe the 2000 election offers their best chance yet of taking back the House. Several recent polls by major news organizations show the Democrats leading the Republicans by 4 to 6 percentage points in the generic vote for Congress. Polling also shows that voters now trust Democrats more than Republicans on Social Security, education and other issues most important to them--although the GOP is making a determined effort to turn around public perceptions.
If the Democrats do prevail, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) would ascend to House speaker, and Minority Whip David E. Bonior (Mich.) would become majority leader, while three other Democrats--Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and John Lewis (Ga.)--are vying for support for the third-ranking majority whip's post. Meanwhile, a long line of experienced lawmakers, including Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin (Appropriations), John Conyers Jr. of Michigan (Judiciary) and John D. Dingell, also of Michigan, (Commerce), are poised to reclaim key chairmanships, raising Democratic hopes that they can hit the ground running in January 2001.
House Democrats almost unanimously credit Gephardt with leading their resurgence. Gephardt, a 23-year veteran who abandoned his presidential campaign to focus exclusively on the House races, helped pick up the pieces after the Republicans' 1994 victory and restructured his party's organization to make it more inclusive and receptive to new ideas.
Gephardt began holding a series of listening sessions, from which sprang a 50- to 60-member Democratic leadership group representing every faction of the party, from the conservative "Blue Dogs" and moderate "New Democrats" to the black caucus, Hispanics, women and liberals.
The change in the composition of the House Democratic contingent since the Republican takeover has been dramatic, with the dominance of urban liberals giving way to more conservative members from marginally Democratic suburban and rural areas. More than 40 percent of the 207 House Democrats arrived in Congress after their party relinquished control.
The impact of that influx has been apparent in the tempering of party policy. The Democrats as a group have become more hawkish on defense, more conservative on domestic spending and national debt issues and more receptive to conservative education initiatives such as charter schools, teacher and student accountability and greater local control of federal funding. Having learned from the fiasco of President Clinton's ill-fated comprehensive national health care plan, the Democrats now favor a less ambitious, more incremental approach.
"The caucus as a whole has become more sensitive to the need to take a more centrist course on many of the policy issues," said Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (Calif.), a leader of the moderate Democrats. "It's pretty clear the only way the Democrats will regain control is by winning swing districts and marginal districts, and the only ones who can win there are those who embrace a 'New Democrat' philosophy."
Democrats say that if they take back the House, they will attempt to build on existing alliances with a handful of moderate Republicans to push through a larger political agenda. Democrats last year worked closely with Republican Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.), Charles Whitlow Norwood Jr. (Ga.) and Jack Quinn (N.Y.), among others, on campaign finance, HMO patients' rights and the minimum wage.
Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.), a leader of the conservative "Blue Dogs," said that if the Democrats win back the House, "you'll see government again run by the radical center."
With the majority in sight, House Democrats have, at least for the moment, damped down their potential divisions on issues such as trade and gun control. Those divisions could resurface during next year's fight over China's trade status, while Gephardt also will have to deal with potential unhappiness from women and African Americans about their status in the Democratic leadership. While she insists that her gender is secondary to her credentials as a seasoned lawmaker and accomplished fund-raiser, Pelosi stresses that it would be a feather in the Democrats' cap to promote a woman to one of the top three posts.
Despite Democratic promises, whichever party prevails next fall will have a tough time surmounting the climate of extreme partisanship. During the early days of the GOP revolution, Republicans marginalized the Democrats by diluting their representation on most committees and excluding them from any key decision-making. Republicans described these tactics as payback for years of heavy-handed Democratic dominance. During his reign, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) literally went for months without speaking to Gephardt.
J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) pledged a more bipartisan approach after succeeding Gingrich as speaker last January, but he has been limited in what he could accomplish because of aggressive opposition from Democrats and resistance from conservative activists.
Although he has been criticized by the GOP for being too partisan himself, Gephardt said his party has learned some valuable lessons in the minority and intends to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. "When you've got a situation where you've been in power a long time, sometimes you become arrogant or assume at the least your majority will always be there," he said. "We learned that's a bad assumption."
Leadership in Waiting
Here is the likely leadership if the Democrats take control of the House in the 2000 elections.
Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), 58, the hard working, intensely focused minority leader who set aside his presidential ambitions to try to lead House Democrats back to power. Gephardt, a lawyer, is a good listener and consensus builder, but also has a hard partisan edge.
David E. Bonior (Mich.), 54, a strong ally of blue-collar America who once studied for the preisthood. Bonior repeatedly attacked Gingrich for his ethical misdeeds and broke with the Clinton administration by opposing NAFTA.
This position remains undecided.
Steny H. Hoyer (Md.)
John Lewis (Ga.)
Nancy Pelosi (Calif.)
David R. Obey (Wis.), 61, fiery liberal and chief Democratic point man on domestic spending. Obey Sharply criticized GOP for excessive use of accounting gimmicks.
John D. Dingell (Mich.), 73, the formidable old bull who once ran the committee with an iron hand and angered liberals this year by siding with the GOP to help torpedo new gun controls.
Ways and Means
Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), 60, a savvy, sardonic Harlem Democrat who would be the first black to head the powerful taxwriting committee.
Transportation and Infrastructure
James L. Oberstar (Minn.), 65, a shrewd veteran lawmaker from the Iron Range who goes along to get along with Republicans.
John Conyers (Mich.), 70, the former committee chairman and civil liberties advocate who defended President Clinton during impeachment hearings.
Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.)
Ike Skelton (Mo.)
John J. LaFalce (N.Y.)
Edward J. Markey (Mass.)
John M. Spratt Jr. (S.C.)
Joseph Moakley (Mass.)
Education and Workforce
George Miller (Calif.)
Nydia Velazquez (N.Y.)
Steny Hoyer (Md.)
Ralph M. Hall (Tex.)
Sam Gejdenson (Conn.)
Lane Evans (Ind.)