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updated 9/14/2006 12:44:17 PM ET 2006-09-14T16:44:17

This is the first of an ongoing series examining the potential impact that a Democratic takeover in Congress would have on key policy issues.

Given the unhappy electorate, the Republican self-doubts and infighting, and the bullish reports from Democrats on the campaign trail, it's no wonder that many members of the long-suffering minority have been wistfully turning their thoughts to wielding control of at least one chamber of Congress next year. "I am very confident," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a rising star in her party, said recently. "All of the momentum is going our way."

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What seemed like a pipe dream for many Democrats back in January, when National Journal did a cover story looking at a potential Democratic takeover of the House and Senate, has become, two months before Election Day, a serious possibility -- all too serious, in fact, for the comfort of Bush administration officials, GOP lawmakers, and many of their K Street allies.

At the beginning of the year, Democratic lawmakers and their aides had few concrete ideas about their prospective agenda in the majority. But now they have far more specific plans for bills that they would like to enact and investigations that they hope to pursue.

The two party leaders, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., are promoting a six-prong "New Direction for America" agenda -- their so-called "Six for '06."

Pelosi has also promised that within 100 hours after taking control of the House on January 3, Democrats will pass legislation to increase the minimum wage, mandate the negotiation of Medicare prescription drug prices, fully implement the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, and repeal tax benefits for big oil companies.

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And that would be only the start. Other Democrats -- especially prospective committee chairmen eager to gain, or regain, control of the gavels -- are bubbling over with possible initiatives across the public policy spectrum.

For instance, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in line to chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wants to push legislation to reduce greenhouse gases, while Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who may lead the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, is looking to cut interest rates on student loans. On the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., the prospective House Ways and Means Committee chairman, wants a more bipartisan policy on international trade, including better protections for U.S. workers.

Notwithstanding their grand hopes of reviving a liberal activism that has been stifled for a dozen years, even the most committed Democratic partisans are realistic about the constraints they would face in the majority. Many openly acknowledge that they would be limited in what they could achieve legislatively in the 110th Congress, because their House or Senate majority would likely be razor-thin and because the GOP might retain control of one chamber. George W. Bush will remain president for another two years, and he may well be prepared to thwart the Democrats' every move. Moreover, as the calendar draws closer to November 2008, gridlock may set in as presidential campaign politics become all-consuming.

"If we take back the House, we ain't going to take it back by much," Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, told NJ. "I would love, of course, and the Democratic Party would agree, to move toward universal [health care] coverage. But that's not going to happen with a five-vote majority, and no one in the White House pushing."

For many key Democrats, the emerging strategy -- should they win some congressional control this November -- appears to be to try to score legislative victories where possible, thwart GOP initiatives, and wage an aggressive oversight campaign to expose what they see as Bush administration shortcomings and neglected national problems. They hope that the high-profile hearings and investigations they plan to hold as part of their 2007-08 oversight effort will lay the groundwork for more-sweeping legislative changes after the presidential election, when they may have widened their congressional majorities and perhaps captured the White House.

Already, many Democrats are making clear that they are eager to use their prospective oversight authority. They have long complained that oversight of the Republican-controlled White House by the Republican-controlled Congress has been abysmal.

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., could not have been clearer in an NJ interview about his plans should he chair the House Armed Services Committee next year: "Oversight, oversight, oversight!" And Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., an ardent Iraq war critic who is in line to chair the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, recently told a breakfast group of reporters: "Accountability will be the key.... You have a guy raise his right hand, we ask him what happened, and we send out some investigators. It will be a big difference."

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a House Energy and Commerce Committee member who has pressed for more information on the administration's use of private contractors that supply military assistance to other nations, declared, "This Congress has been derelict in providing oversight. We need to do our job to restore checks and balances."

It's not that Democrats haven't tried to hold the Bush administration's feet to the fire. As chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., has conducted an "oversight and accountability project" featuring more than three dozen unofficial hearings since 2003 on administration policies, "in the absence of effective oversight by congressional Republicans." And Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., in line to chair the House Appropriations Committee, has raised hard-hitting questions about myriad federal programs.

But the Democrats' inability to compel administration witnesses to testify, and their lack of subpoena authority or even a full-time investigative staff, have limited their ability to probe in detail -- and to get much media coverage. All of that would change, of course, if Democrats gain the clout of Senate or House committee chairmanships.

Although numerous prospective chairmen are laying plans for tough oversight, one of them -- Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., at the House Government Reform Committee -- is best positioned to become "Mr. Oversight" in a Democratic-controlled Congress.

As the combative chairman of the panel's Health and the Environment Subcommittee from 1979 to 1994, Waxman used his post as a platform to address issues ranging from AIDS and expanded Medicaid benefits to safe drinking water legislation and the landmark 1990 Clean Air Act. In most cases, his legislative efforts were preceded by extensive oversight hearings. The nation was riveted by Waxman's 1994 hearings at which tobacco executives testified that nicotine is not addictive and that their companies do not market cigarettes to children, although Republicans ultimately deep-sixed his legislation.

In a Democratic Congress, Waxman's dogged investigative efforts could quickly make him the White House's No. 1 nemesis. "He would be a barracuda," predicted Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., in an interview. "The whole Democratic menu would be to tear down the administration.... You would see a large shift from Congress not doing enough oversight, to doing too much. It would keep the administration off balance."

A top aide to a veteran House Republican from California likewise said that Waxman "will be totally partisan." And a House Democratic staffer who supports Waxman added, "God help George Bush if Henry Waxman chairs Government Reform.... He understands the need for investigation, and will hold agencies accountable."

Waxman's power would stem in part from his panel's wide jurisdiction. In his words, "This committee has oversight over everything that the government is involved with." In an interview with NJ, Waxman said it would be "presumptuous to think what I would want to do in January. We won't know what will be the big issues at that moment." But he is "stunned by the waste, fraud, and abuse in government spending," and these issues will surely be a focus of his agenda.

"The three big areas have been Iraq reconstruction, the damage from Hurricane Katrina, and homeland security," Waxman said. "In all three of these areas, we see the same mistakes: big monopoly contracts, no bidding, no competition. So, there are a lot of abuses." Waxman has also said that he will pursue some of these problems with the panel's legislative authority.

At the counterpart Senate panel, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, no similar veteran watchdog lies in wait. Ranking member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., faces uncertain re-election prospects, and some Democrats have criticized him in the past for being insufficiently aggressive on oversight. Next in line would likely be 81-year-old Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who has not played an active role on the committee and who faces a competitive September 23 primary. In any case, the Senate committee has a long bipartisan history under chairmen of both parties.

In the interview with NJ, Waxman downplayed his partisan image and emphasized that he would seek to work with Republicans. His Democratic allies, and even some Republicans who have worked with him, call him evenhanded. As chairman, Waxman "would be responsible, and he would not play games," said Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, a close ally. "Henry is a gentleman in how he treats other people. But he is a tough advocate in working to expose what needs to be exposed. It's not personal."

Waxman has had a relatively collaborative relationship with Chairman Davis. In the panel's investigation last year of steroid use by baseball players, for instance, the idea for the inquiry came from Phil Schiliro, Waxman's top aide, who has spent a quarter-century on Capitol Hill, nearly all of it with the California House member. "Phil is an avid baseball fan and was offended by the idea of Major League Baseball allowing the sport to be corrupted by the use of performance-enhancing drugs," Waxman recounted. "So we wrote a letter to Tom Davis, and he felt that it would be an interesting idea as well."

The politically savvy Davis, aware of the possibility that he could soon become the panel's ranking member, has been responsive to other requests by Waxman. "I have a very high regard for his intellect and energy," Davis said in the interview with NJ. "Our discussions are rational and honorable." Davis's top committee aide, Staff Director Dave Marin, added, "Mr. Waxman and his staff have shown that they're open to compromise. Although their instinct is acutely partisan, at the end of the day they're usually reasonable to deal with."

An interesting aspect of a Waxman chairmanship might be his relationship with Pelosi, who almost certainly would be speaker if Democrats control the House. Although the two Californians have usually had an amicable relationship, Waxman quietly differed with Pelosi's partisan boycott of a Davis-led investigation of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. Waxman and other Government Reform Committee Democrats agreed not to participate in the inquiry. But a few Gulf Coast Democrats joined the hearings, and the panel's February report was widely praised as fair.

Pelosi rejects criticisms that she is a harsh partisan. In an interview this spring with NJ, she said she would seek bipartisanship in running the House. "This is a marketplace of ideas," she said. "Hopefully, it can be less partisan, but with appropriate debate."

The talk of future bipartisanship from Pelosi, Waxman, and other Democrats seems to reflect their sensitivity that an unsparing focus on past Bush policies could be politically counterproductive. They seem wary of overreaching, mindful that the Republicans' excesses in handling impeachment charges against President Clinton helped pave the way for the early demise of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., in 1998.

Pelosi, for one, has distanced herself from earlier talk by likely House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., of Bush's own possible vulnerability to impeachment charges. Still, after congressional Democrats have spent the better part of 12 years in the minority, it would be hard to believe that some of them wouldn't be interested in at least a little political payback.

Chuck Todd is editor in chief of The Hotline .

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