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updated 11/10/2006 6:08:42 PM ET 2006-11-10T23:08:42

When Democrats last ran the House, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois reigned as the autocratic Ways and Means Committee chairman who paid scant deference to party leaders.

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Occasionally, House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, would challenge Rostenkowski's handling of major legislation, particularly when the chairman went his own way to cut deals with Republican presidents. But Rostenkowski would stand firm and defy the speaker, sometimes leading to high-stakes standoffs between the two. "Danny resented that I was not as willing as [former Speaker] Tip [O'Neill] was to let him make policy on taxes," Wright told a National Journal reporter in 1995.

Now, as an even more activist Democrat -- Rep. Charles Rangel of New York -- prepares to take over as the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means panel, those days are long gone. Although Rangel inevitably has a long legislative wish list and might be eager to lash out against objectionable Bush administration policies, he is mindful of his responsibility to work with Democratic leaders to help his party move forward constructively. In a conference call with reporters the day after the election, Rangel acknowledged, "I have to take a leadership view."

As victorious Democrats outline their plans for assuming House and Senate control in January, more than a few are using the same pragmatic, measured tones. Even before their Election Day sweep, in fact, Democrats seemed to be preparing to run a far smarter majority than they did in the past, one that has learned its lessons after enduring a humiliating stretch in the minority. They have talked about avoiding the mistakes and excesses of their own previous rule -- and avoiding the Republicans' mistakes and excesses since then. At the same time, they seem to be looking to take a few pages from the more-successful parts of the GOP playbook.

The Democratic buzzwords are "civility," "accomplishments," and above all, "bipartisanship" -- Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., used the "B" word more than a dozen times during a brief November 8 news conference. Democratic lawmakers say that the election results reinforce their contention that the way the Republicans have run Capitol Hill in recent years has been both unsavory and counterproductive.

"The American people spoke out for a return to civility in the Capitol in Washington and how Congress conducts its work, and Democrats pledge civility and bipartisanship.... We pledge partnerships with the Republicans in Congress and with the president, and not partisanship," Pelosi said. "The campaign is over. Democrats are ready to lead. We're prepared to govern, but that means in a bipartisan way."

Democrats have been careful not to play into the GOP campaign-trail warnings about what a "liberal" Congress would do. They're not openly pondering partisan political payback, having notably brushed aside any talk of trying to impeach President Bush months ago. Democrats also seem wary of overreaching. When they held the majority in 1993-94, they stumbled with President Clinton's overly ambitious health care plan. Then they saw their GOP colleagues perhaps go too far on the government budget shutdown in 1995-96, and on the impeachment of Clinton in 1998, only to later pay a political price.

Even the most partisan Democrats are realistic about the constraints they face in the majority. Many acknowledge that they will be limited in what they can achieve legislatively, with Bush still in the White House and with 2008 presidential campaign politics soon to consume all else. They are striving to agree upon a modest, achievable agenda so they will have something to show voters two years from now.

"Democrats shouldn't take a lot of comfort in their [electoral] victories, because we are going to have to do it all over again in two years -- and this time, the real focus will be on performance and on what we have done," said former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in an interview. "It is important that, rather than making statements, [Democrats] find a capacity for compromise and real accomplishment.... If we are where we are today two years from now, my guess is that [the new majority] is going to pay a high price."

Moreover, Democrats seem bent on avoiding the bitter divisions in their caucus that plagued the end of their 40-year reign. They may be looking to emulate the successes -- but certainly not the style -- of the vaunted GOP leadership machine once headed by former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, which was highly effective in instilling party discipline and keeping the Republican rank and file unified. Like Rangel, other Democrats acknowledge that the autonomous Democratic committee chairmen of the old days were a problem -- and that the leaders are already taking steps to centralize power.

Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., who will become House Budget Committee chairman in January, pledged that Democrats will be able to sort out all of their competing goals amid the harsh reality of the budget deficit. "We'll go to the committee chairmen and tell them to prioritize things," Spratt said, adding that he believes that Pelosi will have the clout to achieve that. "Speaker Pelosi comes out of this process with a tremendous amount of goodwill," he said.

Here then, is a look at some of the lessons that Democrats say they have learned -- or at least hope they have learned.

Limit the legislative agenda
Especially in the House, where the majority party has far greater ability than in the Senate to dictate the agenda, Democrats are preparing to grab the low-hanging fruit early, and they are conscious of not setting the bar too high. Pelosi's first 100 hours agenda includes bills -- raising the minimum wage and lowering student loan rates, for instance -- that surely will pass, perhaps with Republican support.

"I think the agenda will be limited, regardless of whether Democrats see it that way or not, because there are only certain things that can be accomplished," Daschle said. "If they want to govern and produce real results, then there may be a more limited array of options."

Democrats hope to succeed, in part, by adopting a positive and conciliatory attitude. "You can govern with a narrow majority -- if you listen to people and are willing to compromise," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., in an interview as he prepared to speak to an Election Night crowd in Seattle.

Democrats have likewise become careful of asserting too much oversight of the executive branch. Especially on the war in Iraq, many see the risk of overplaying their hand. They must not appear to be trying to exploit the war to score political points at a time when casualties are mounting. Democrats suffered mightily at the polls -- losing control of the Senate in the 2002 elections -- when Republicans portrayed them as weak on homeland security.

Democrats will be determined to provide more-vigorous oversight, said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., an active member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But they have clearly indicated that they won't merely engage in Monday-morning quarterbacking. "What we are asking for is appropriate cooperation between coequal branches of government, where we have a job to do [and] they have a job to do," Reed said in an interview. "I don't think it is designed to be some sort of hazing.... We need information. Frankly, a lot of times, if they would just provide us the documents, we'd be ... happy. That's mostly what we need."

Still, some Democrats worry that in setting their agenda, limiting the very high expectations among some factions of the party will be difficult. "There are a lot of people who represent disadvantaged urban areas who have waited a long time" for the Democrats to regain the majority, said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and a former House aide. "They'll think now is the time to do something."

Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., the likely incoming chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, is hopeful about what lies ahead. "As the minority party, it's been heartbreaking to me personally, and devastating to millions of people," she said. "When Democrats are in charge, people's lives will be better."

Keep the chairmen accountable
Pelosi has already sent signals to several prospective committee chairmen that she won't hesitate to pull them back. Earlier this year she stifled impeachment talk by incoming Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich. She has made it clear that she prefers incoming Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to take the lead on oversight issues, rather than incoming Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., with whom she has a chilly relationship. And her apparent desire to prevent Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., from chairing the Intelligence Committee has been well publicized.

Only four of the 21 incoming Democratic House committee chairmen have experience with the gavel, contrary to the perception that they are all "old bulls." Several others, however, have long served as ranking members and have considerable legislative expertise. The imperative for all of them will be to work collegially with colleagues, including the most-junior members.

A good chairman merely lets the legislative process work its will, said former Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, one of the founding members of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition. He noted, for instance, that many moderate Democrats were concerned when liberal Rep. Ronald Dellums, D-Calif., became chairman of the Armed Services Committee in 1993. "In the end, he was judged as one of the best chairmen," Stenholm said. "He allowed the process to work."

Former Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, predicted that the incoming chairmen will be willing to work with the leadership. "Rostenkowski went his own way and didn't care," Frost said. "We now have capable chairmen, many of whom have strong personalities, but they will want to work with the leadership.... They are pros and want the party to be successful. They want to keep Democratic control of Congress and to elect a Democratic president. These goals create strong incentives for cooperation."

In a pre-election interview, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., a Blue Dog leader, was hopeful that a House takeover would leave Democrats "chastened" so that they avoid their earlier arrogance. "I hope that we will return to a functioning Congress," he said. "This is a critical moment in American history."

Concentrate on issues that unify the party
Democrats openly concede that their caucus's diversity could lead to problems. "Governing is challenging," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., at a post-election press conference. "Will we have issues? Yeah. But there is more that unites us."

Some Democrats agree that much more unites than divides them. Democrats can coalesce on a core set of issues, said Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., one of the most liberal House Democrats. "On the larger issues," he said, "we'll negotiate with them and we'll come together as a party, because we all believe in them."

For his part, the moderate Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., added that Democrats can promote unity by avoiding hot-button social issues. "I hope the leadership realizes that the face of the Democratic Caucus has changed," he said. "They are not going to be people that one thinks of when one thinks of traditional Democrats."

After the election, the Blue Dogs quickly reminded leaders that nine incoming freshmen Democrats are moderates who will join their coalition. Even Serrano admits that many of the new members are not "Serrano liberals." He said he cannot ask a colleague to support him 60 percent of the time and then "make his life miserable 40 percent of the time and hurt his chances for re-election."

Moderate Democrats will be forceful in imposing their will, Stenholm said. "There's no possible way for the Democratic coalition to go too far to the left," he contended. "The Blue Dogs won't let that happen."

Several eager Democrats are preparing middle-of-the-road proposals that they hope will please everyone. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., who is in line to chair the Veterans' Affairs Committee, has been working with veterans to urge support of a "21st-century GI bill of rights." The proposal, which Pelosi has enthusiastically backed, would expand veterans' housing, education, and health care. "Republicans have been screwing them with a lack of funding," Filner said.

As the ranking member on the Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations, Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., is also thinking expansively. Using federal pension laws, he wants to expand health coverage for the uninsured. "Most Democrats want to expand health care. It will cost federal money," he said. "A source is [to curtail] tax cuts on the top 1 percent of taxpayers." Is that realistic? Yes, Andrews said. "My confidence is grounded in the ability of our leaders to be pragmatic."

On issues where they mostly agree, Democrats may benefit by adopting strategies that lawmakers have successfully deployed to outflank presidents. "They will use both stem-cell research and the minimum wage on Bush 43 the way that the Democrats in the Senate used the Family and Medical Leave Act on Bush 41," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "They are going to send [a bill] to him. He will veto it, and they are going to condemn him as heartless and insensitive and cruel -- every indignant adjective the Democrats can summon up. Of course, he could trip them up by agreeing to sign it."

Seek bipartisanship
For years, Democrats have complained that Republicans jammed legislation down their throats. And they are vowing to do things differently.

Waxman, who has a reputation for being aggressive and often partisan, has pledged to "reach out" to work with Republicans in the 110th Congress. "I would want Republicans to join us and to get their input. I would certainly reach out to Republicans who want to work on policy," he said during an August interview. "I never accepted the way that Republicans operated, of doing things solely on a partisan basis. I would want to do hearings, look for solutions, and act on a bipartisan basis.... If we control the agenda, hopefully we can get support for it."

At a November 9 press conference, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., who chairs the centrist New Democrat Coalition, voiced similar views. "We want to pass legislation that is bipartisan and with a big vote" of members in favor, she said. "We want to return the legislative process to the House."

Spratt agreed. "We will try to establish a House with more cooperation and comity," he said. To avoid the acrimony and gridlock of the past several years, Democratic budgeteers will invite Republicans to a summit to try to hash out a bipartisan spending plan, he said. "We'll make the effort," he added. "If it doesn't work, it won't be because we didn't try."

Even if Democrats cannot gain GOP support on particular bills, they can gain Republicans' goodwill simply by making the legislative process fairer, Tanner said. He called it "letting democracy actually flourish in the House of Representatives."

National Journal Staff Correspondents Julie Kosterlitz, John Maggs, and Marilyn Werber Serafini contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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