With the Capitol all but deserted last Monday night, the Democratic "30-Something Working Group" seized the House floor and took aim at their Republican adversaries.
As C-SPAN cameras beamed their performance around the country, Rep. Timothy J. Ryan, 32, of Ohio and Rep. Kendrick Meek, 39, of Florida recited a litany of GOP misdeeds -- mismanaging Hurricane Katrina and neglecting education and health care, for example -- and offered the Democrats' alternatives.
Their conversation even veered to religion, a subject many Democrats are afraid to touch. Ryan described the problems of the poor as a moral obligation and asked of Meek: "Where is the Christian Coalition when you are cutting poverty programs? They are fighting over Supreme Court justices."
The two newcomers -- who have served a combined six years in the House -- are part of a new generation of Democrats who are working to try to topple the GOP. Their fresh ideas, modern media skills and aggressive political tactics have inspired a party that has drifted for much of the past decade -- wedded to old notions and seemingly incapable of capitalizing on White House and congressional Republican miscues.
As part of the new approach, House and Senate Democrats are devising an alternative agenda of key policies. Ryan is pushing proposals aimed at drastically reducing the number of abortions over the coming decade by offering support and services to pregnant women. Others are crafting a plan for reducing U.S. dependence on imported oil by using more domestic agricultural products, an approach that would have significant appeal to Midwestern voters.
"We can't be Dr. No to everything Republicans do," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "We have to provide our own positive ideas."
The rise of the new breed, including Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Barack Obama (Ill.), the Senate's only African American and the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, marks a generational divide in a party long dominated by Northeastern liberals and Southern conservatives.
Unlike some of their forbears, the newcomers are pragmatists who view the past decade of GOP rule not as an aberration but as a sea change in political campaigning, fundraising and lobbying to which Democrats must adjust. They arrived in Washington as challengers and are comfortable questioning the establishment -- because they have not been part of it.
"Everyone recognizes the bottom line: We've got to win the House," said Van Hollen, who is in his second term. "So people are looking for creative alternatives, and they're much more willing to experiment now."
Many Democrats concede that, as a group, they were bullied into submission by President Bush during his first four years, when his popularity was high. They went along with his tax cuts, backed the war in Iraq and helped adopt a controversial Medicare prescription drug program. This year, however, the Democrats began pushing back more, even before the uproar over the administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina. By standing united, they helped to block Bush's plan to create private accounts in the Social Security system.
But in light of the Democrats' meager political successes in recent years, it is far from certain they can score major gains in next year's elections, even with Bush's popularity falling and widespread displeasure over the war and gasoline prices, according to lawmakers and political experts.
"It's not as easy as it looks," said former representative Robert S. Walker (Pa.). Walker sees plenty of parallels between his crowd of 1994 GOP House revolutionaries and the young Democrats, but he notes that the Republicans started laying the groundwork for their takeover in the early 1980s, at least a decade before their electoral coup. "I can understand why people say an opportunity is presenting itself," Walker said. "But it does take more than a couple of election cycles to change things."
While change within the party has not always gone smoothly, the top leaders recognize the importance of giving newer members running room. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has passed over more senior lawmakers to give newcomers key committee assignments and speaking roles during high-profile floor debates. For instance, she placed Meek on the Homeland Security and Armed Services panels, to enable him to earn national security credentials. And she gave Rep. Stephanie Herseth (S.D.) a prominent role in fighting a GOP plan to reduce Medicaid spending.
She also put junior lawmakers in charge of the 2006 campaign effort. "They are the future," Pelosi said. "And they are starting to set the pace for where things go."
Perhaps no other newcomer has moved up as quickly as Emanuel, an adviser in the Clinton White House who took command of the Democrats' campaign committee after a single House term.
Emanuel has assembled a 2006 candidate slate that includes a former National Football League player, several veterans of the Iraq war, and many senior state officials, the latest being New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, who signed on last week to challenge Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R). Madrid was recruited by Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-Calif.), who is in her third term.
Another standout on Emanuel's recruitment team is Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, 39, who arrived in Washington 11 months ago after a dozen years in the rough-and-tumble Florida legislature. She lined up former Florida state senator Ron Klein (D) to run for the seat next door to hers, now occupied by Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R), a veteran legislator.
When Shaw heard the news, he confronted Wasserman Schultz on the floor and told her that the tradition among members of the Florida delegation is to refrain from working against one another. Wasserman Schultz reminded Shaw that several Florida Republicans had worked against Rep. Karen L. Thurman (D-Fla.), who was defeated in 2002.
"I was really polite and said the pact didn't seem to have held very solidly," Wasserman Schultz recalled. "I guess he thought he was speaking to someone who had just begun their political career that day."
Emanuel says of his newcomer colleagues, "They're willing to dust it up, and that's what it's going to take."
They have run into their share of friction. Pelosi has gone back and forth with Ryan over his abortion proposal, worried that certain provisions could dilute the traditional Democratic position backing abortion rights. And Emanuel got into a spat with senior Hispanic House Democrats over the hiring of a campaign committee aide they were pushing.
In the Senate, newer faces must vie with Democratic presidential aspirants for media attention. Two who are breaking through are Obama, 44, and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), 42, one of 22 Senate Democrats who supported John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice of the United States. Yesterday, Pryor gave the Democratic response to Bush's radio address.
"One of the advantages of having a lot of new blood in the Senate is that we don't necessarily come to the chamber with a lot of baggage from past battles," Pryor said. "A lot of my senior colleagues vividly remember the Bork nomination. I don't care about Robert Bork. That's in the past, and I don't think we ought to dwell on that."
Obama, a former Illinois legislator, voted against Roberts but defended Pryor and other Democratic supporters on the Daily Kos blog. Like many new-generation Democrats, he is impatient with the rigidity expressed by some of the party's old-line liberal interest groups, believing the public takes a more nuanced view of issues such as abortion and affirmative action.
"When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive 'checklist,' then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems," Obama wrote.
Pelosi says House and Senate leaders will soon lay out a slate of new ideas, similar to the "Contract With America" that the GOP used to attract voters in 1994, when it took back control of Congress.
One group that Democrats want to tap is veterans and active military members, who have seen their benefits cut or frozen as part of an ongoing budget squeeze. Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a second-term House member, believes Republicans could pay heavily at the polls throughout the South for overlooking this crucial voting group.
"When I see white male Alabamians shaking their heads, that tells me there are opportunities for Democrats to make major inroads," Davis said.