After two days of watching Rep. Nancy Pelosi hailed as a political pioneer and the toast of her party, Sen. Harry M. Reid joined her yesterday atop the first Democratic-controlled Congress in a dozen years thanks to a razor-thin election in Virginia.
What seemed almost unthinkable a year ago -- Pelosi as House speaker and Reid as Senate majority leader in the 110th Congress -- suddenly is reality, sending the two into overdrive as they approve committee chairmen, set priorities, and referee disputes between colleagues who are planning to hire more staffers and move into larger offices.
The Democrats' success in the Bush presidency's final two years will depend largely on the compatibility and forcefulness of the two barely tested leaders, according to some lawmakers and political experts. Reid, a former boxer from Nevada, is a camera-averse Senate insider who has used rear-guard tactics to bedevil Senate Republicans on Social Security, nominations and other issues in recent years. Pelosi is a wealthy San Franciscan who grew up in a Baltimore political family and now has reached the highest elected post of any American woman.
Voters want results
They know that voters will expect results. But the Democrats' majorities in the House -- and especially the Senate -- are so slender that they will have to make at least modest accommodations to President Bush and Republican lawmakers on many matters. Reid and Pelosi are not particularly close, associates say, but they are disciplined realists who value party loyalty and are unafraid to tell colleagues or supporters not to overreach in a still-divided political climate.
"Both have shown how good they are at counting noses and enforcing party discipline," said Bruce Reed, a former Clinton White House aide who heads the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Under their leadership, "the House and Senate Democratic caucuses have been more united than ever," he said. "They'll need that trait even more in the majority because they can leave no nose behind."
Yesterday, Reid echoed Pelosi's earlier assertion that Democrats will push an agenda to help middle-class families and reduce the deficit while also treating Republican lawmakers more generously than the GOP had treated Democrats during their years in the minority.
"The election is over, and it's time for a change," Reid told a cheering throng of Democratic aides outside the Capitol. They assembled shortly after Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) conceded defeat to James Webb, handing Democrats their 51st vote in the 100-member chamber.
Aides and friends say Reid and Pelosi are strongly partisan people who fumed under the heavy hand of GOP majorities, especially in the House, and who made no secret of their distaste for Bush's handling of the Iraq war and other policies. But the sources said the two also realize they must minimize differences within their caucuses. And they know they must balance the stridently anti-Bush sentiments of some liberal constituents against the more pragmatic pocketbook concerns of moderate and unaffiliated voters who were crucial to this week's election results.
"You have to govern from the center," Pelosi said yesterday. "We are in a completely different place now. We are setting our legislative agenda."
"It's time for bipartisanship, it's time for open government, transparency, and it's a time for results," Reid said. "There must be a new direction in Iraq," he said, along with more affordable college tuition and health care, greater energy independence, and smaller deficits.
Reid did not say how Democrats would shrink the deficit while boosting college aid, and insiders said such challenges will be the test of the effectiveness and savvy of a Reid-and-Pelosi-led Congress. Both leaders agreed on the "Six for '06" priorities, which include relatively popular measures such as raising the minimum wage.
"But it gets more complicated after that," said a former White House and congressional aide who knows Democratic lawmakers well. Especially in the Senate, he said, a party with a 51 to 49 majority will find it difficult to surgically raise, lower or leave alone certain taxes without opening the door for Republicans to push their own priorities.
Pelosi said that Democratic leaders want to demonstrate their effectiveness, and build up some trust with the White House, by tackling legislation that will have bipartisan support. Bush's "innovation agenda," laid out last year in his State of the Union address, has largely lain dormant. Democrats would like to take up Bush's proposals to expand funding for basic research and alternative energy sources such as ethanol, she said.
Democrats would also work with Bush to resurrect his proposed overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, which would pair tough border security measures with new paths to legal work and citizenship for the country's 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants, Pelosi said. And she is convinced Bush will back a higher minimum wage.
But even Pelosi questioned how quickly such legislative efforts can come together. "I guess the word 'rapid' is what gives me hesitation," she told a handful of reporters in her office.
Pelosi continues to put flesh on the bare-bones proposals that Democratic candidates campaigned on. As soon as she is elected speaker -- which does not appear in doubt -- Democrats will vote on a substantive slate of changes to the way the House operates, she said. They will include rules to diminish lobbyists' influence, ensure that lawmakers and the public have time to read legislation before lawmakers vote on it, open House-Senate legislative negotiating sessions to the media, and reinstitute lapsed budget rules that say any new spending or tax cuts must be offset by equal tax hikes or spending cuts.
Democrats also will extend new rules mandating that each home-district pet project, known as an earmark, be identified by the name of the lawmaker who sponsored it. Earmarks would have to be authorized by policymaking committees before they are approved by the Appropriations Committee.
Democrats avoided a potentially brutal intraparty fight yesterday when Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) decided not to run for the post of House majority whip next week. That would have pitted Emanuel, who has a huge well of support from this year's successful campaign, against James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the current chairman of the Democratic Caucus and the only African American in the Democratic leadership.
After delicate negotiations with Pelosi, Emanuel agreed to stand for caucus chairman, leaving the whip post to Clyburn. Under the agreement, John B. Larson (Conn.), the caucus vice chairman, will stay at that post rather than seek promotion, but both Emanuel and Larson would be offered additional power and responsibilities, according to Democratic leadership aides.
Emanuel's decision raised pressure on John P. Murtha (Pa.) to drop his challenge to House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) for the post of House majority leader. But that battle continued to heat up ahead of the Thursday vote.
Congress will reassemble next week for a lame-duck session devoted mostly to completing work on the spending bills needed to keep the government operating. But with Democrats assuming the majority in January, not much will happen, Senate Republican aides conceded.