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Democrats look for lessons in GOP reign

Democrats preparing to take control of Congress for the first time in over a decade are looking to the Republican takeover in 1995 as an object lesson of what to emulate and what to avoid. [!]
Presumptive Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, right, introduces Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, left, Sen. Charles Schumer, and Sen. Harry Reid to Democrtic Party supporters at an election-night party in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 8.
Presumptive Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, right, introduces Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, left, Sen. Charles Schumer, and Sen. Harry Reid to Democrtic Party supporters at an election-night party in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 8.Gerald Martineau / Washington Post file
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Democrats preparing to take control of Congress for the first time in over a decade are looking to the Republican takeover in 1995 as an object lesson of what to emulate and what to avoid. They hope to match the legislative energy of the Newt Gingrich era while avoiding at all costs the partisan pitfalls that eventually soured voters on the GOP.

The majority party that takes control of the House and Senate in January will look significantly different from the party that was swept from power in the 1994 elections. The old-guard liberals and staunch union supporters in control then are giving way to a new generation of moderates with more temperate legislative ambitions.

Democrats last week picked up six seats in the Senate and at least 28 seats in the House en route to victory. Eleven of those House districts were solidly Republican in the 2004 presidential election, while new Democratic senators from Montana, Missouri, Virginia and Ohio will have to be mindful of their traditionally Republican constituents.

Contract With America II?
Led by a feisty Nevada senator and the first woman in history to claim the House speaker's post, the long-banished Democrats hope to prove their bona fides as lawmakers and challenge a president from the other party to accept their agenda, a game plan taken straight from the Gingrich era's "Contract With America." They also intend to challenge President Bush to change course in Iraq and consider their demands for a time table for withdrawing U.S. troops.

But Democrats say they will avoid the overreaching, arrogance and rancorous partisanship that left them virtually powerless on Capitol Hill and spawned an era of political corruption and influence-peddling. Democratic leaders vowed last week to pass major ethics reforms early in the new 110th Congress, and to offer Republicans seats at the negotiating table and ample opportunities to amend bills on the floor -- opportunities that were denied their party.

"What they did was very effective in pulling up all the ladders for any other party to gain the majority," incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week of the Gingrich revolutionaries. "They just shut the doors to debate on the floor, to amendments coming, to even how special orders [speeches] were conducted. Everything they were effective in using to gain the majority they shut down."

"We're going to do the opposite," she pledged.

"This country has spoken loudly and clearly," Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), slated to become the new Senate majority leader in January, told a Capitol Hill rally last week. "There must be a change of direction in Iraq. We have to have results in doing something to make health care more affordable and more available. We have to do something to create energy independence."

Ambitious agenda
House Democratic leaders have put forward an ambitious opening salvo for January, a 100-hour legislative blitz that includes raising the minimum wage, boosting alternative-energy research and repealing tax breaks for oil companies. They also want to beef up seaport screening, expand college tuition assistance, boost stem cell research and allow the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices under Medicare.

House Democrats also hope to approve rules changes to limit the influence of lobbyists, offer the minority party more input on legislation, curb home-state pet projects in spending bills and, possibly, give the District of Columbia voting rights on the House floor.

But once the 100 hours or so pass, pressure will mount on Democrats to confront what many liberals see as the misdeeds of Bush and the Republican Party. The party's base is clamoring for Democrats to repeal tax cuts skewed to the affluent, to revisit the new law authorizing military tribunals for terrorism suspects and to investigate the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

To probe or not to probe?
To some Democrats, such calls raise memories of the aggressive -- and ultimately self-destructive -- stance that House Republicans took when they stormed to power in the 1994 election and later voted to impeach President Bill Clinton, only to see Clinton acquitted in the Senate.

"They're under great pressure to placate the base, to be hard-line and in some ways to pay back the Republicans," said former senator Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), the last Democratic Senate majority leader. "But they're also under tremendous pressure to produce and show they can govern. Finding the balance, that's going to be the big challenge."

"It's one thing to oppose and obstruct. It's another to try to govern and legislate," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), a moderate Republican who is urging bipartisan cooperation. "How they set in gear the motions for governing and legislating will clearly set the tone for the duration."

The ranks of the new Democratic leadership will include Reid, who once called Bush a "loser" and a "liar"; Pelosi, who bitterly remembers the power shift to the Republicans; and a new Democratic Caucus chairman, Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who confronted Gingrich's revolution as an aide in the Clinton White House.

Of God and luck
"Newt ran in and said, 'I'm basically the prime minister,' " Emanuel recalled. "We didn't do that. Nancy said we won an election. The president won an election. We have to respect the results of both 2004 and 2006."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, agreed: "We should always be mindful that there was a little bit of God and a lot of bit of luck here. A 4,000-vote shift and we would have four new senators, not the U.S. Senate."

If all voters see is interest-group politics and "a lot of shouting," Schumer added, "our victory could be ephemeral . . . more ephemeral than Gingrich's one was. Everyone has to be cognizant of the fact that keeping the majority helps all of us achieve far more of our goals than if we undermine it."

But there are limits to such sentiments. In the 1990s, Republicans shifted the number of committee seats allotted to the majority and minority parties to virtually ensure that no cross-party collaboration would be needed to draft and pass legislation. When asked whether she may change those ratios as a goodwill gesture, Pelosi last week snapped, "I don't see a scenario where there is going to be much appetite for that."

Partisan temptation
And regardless of leaders' intent, conservative Democrats worry that Democratic old bulls, returning to chair committees after so long in the minority, could drive a partisan agenda. Some fear that Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), at the helm of the education panel, and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, may be too quick to pick fights before Democrats can cement their gains.

"We increased our market share by going where the market was, to moderate, even Republican districts," said Rep. John S. Tanner (Tenn.), a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, which has grown to become one of the largest House Democratic factions. "If we're going to hold and consolidate that, we have to understand the reality that the face of the Democratic Caucus has changed from where it was in late '80s and early '90s."

Similar dynamics may be at play in the Senate, where Democrats will hold a one-vote majority. The incoming class of senators includes two economic populists in Reps. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), a classic centrist with a slender mandate in Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), and a cantankerous conservative in Jim Webb (D-Va.).

"It's going to be an interesting year," quipped one Senate Democratic leadership aide.

‘6 for ’06’
Once Democrats have exhausted their consensus agenda, a legislative priority list they call "6 for '06," they will have to decide whether they need to become more ambitious -- balancing the budget, overhauling immigration policy, or tackling problems of poverty and the uninsured, for instance -- or focus on the nuts and bolts of governance to prove competence ahead of the 2008 campaign.

Schumer said they need to be aggressive: " 'Six for '06' is enough to establish a beachhead, but it's not enough for '08."

William Howell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy and the co-author of a forthcoming book on the balance of power between Congress and the presidency, disagreed. There may be nothing in the Democrats' agenda beyond the opening salvo, he said, and there probably does not have to be. The election of 1994 brought to power a Republican leadership that campaigned on a specific platform, along with a huge freshman class of ideological conservatives. That was not the case in 2006.

"Everyone woke up Wednesday saying America wants change, but they didn't say, 'Americans want the following five legislative items,' " he said.

Better to take a back seat?
Howell said Democrats should pass new ethics laws to distance themselves from the scandal-ridden 109th Congress, push a few broadly popular initiatives such as a minimum wage increase and then concentrate on the business of governance -- passing spending bills on time, taking up nominations and confronting national issues as they arise.

Partisan energies should be channeled to hearings, especially on the conduct of the war in Iraq, which would be far more effective in marshalling public pressure on Bush than any legislation, he said.

Douglas MacKinnon, an aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) during the 1990s, said Democrats must learn from Republican mistakes.

"Number one, you don't have a mandate," he said, addressing Democrats. "The American people were just sick of the other side, so don't turn things upside down, because they won't put up with it. . . . And guess what, the American people do want you to work with the other side. Republicans didn't. They let arrogance rule the day, and it hurt them in the end."

Staff writer Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.