After years of playing defense, liberal advocacy groups see the Democrats' takeover of Congress as a long-awaited chance to convert some of their goals into law. Their wish lists include workplace protections for gays, a broader hate-crimes law, and a multi-pronged push to reduce unplanned pregnancies.
A Republican president remains in the White House, armed with veto power, and Democratic control of the Senate is as slim as could be. Yet gay-rights, feminist and abortion-rights groups are nonetheless pleased by their brightest prospects for legislative victories since 1994.
"It's exciting to get off the defensive," said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She hopes the new Congress will stay away from debate on abortion restrictions and instead work on a bipartisan basis to curtail unintended pregnancies.
"Common sense" initiatives
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said "common sense" initiatives might include requiring health insurance companies to cover birth control, requiring that emergency contraception be available at hospitals for rape victims, and ensuring that sex education for young people includes accurate information about contraceptives.
The president of the largest national gay-rights group, Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign, said he has high hopes for two long-pending proposals that failed to get through the GOP-controlled Congress. One would outlaw employment discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people; another would include them among the groups protected in federal hate-crimes legislation.
Gay activists also would like to see Congress repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibits gay members of the military from being open about their sexual orientation - but a push for this may come somewhere down the road.
"Everyone remembers the fight President Clinton had when he made this his first major political issue in 1993," said Aaron Belkin, director of a University of California, Santa Barbara think tank that studies gays and the military.
"While opinion on letting gays serve has moved leaps and bounds since then, the new Democratic Congress is not likely to come out strongly on this one from the get-go," Belkin said.
Solmonese indicated that leading gay-rights groups will be patient with the new Democratic leadership, not pushing to have their issues be at the very top of the 2007 agenda.
"What we've got is a new and respectful Congress that's open to our community, to learning the specifics of our issues," he said. "To stress right now - 'This is what we want and this is when we want it' - would be premature."
Feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women were generally at odds with the GOP leadership in Congress and have welcomed the power switch, which will include Rep. Nancy Pelosi serving as the first female speaker of the House.
NOW President Kim Gandy said her organization's legislative wish list includes adding gender to the existing federal hate-crimes law, tightening controls over silicone breast implants, and improving options for working mothers through enhanced family leave policies and child care options.
Some conservatives have expressed hope that - on abortion issues, at least - Democratic stances in Congress might be moderated by the election of several anti-abortion candidates. But other leaders on the right, such as Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, doubt these Democratic newcomers will sway policy.
"Instead, anticipate the fiercest assault of our time against abstinence, marriage, life, good judges, and religious freedom," Perkins wrote this week in the National Review. "Pro-life Democrats are likely to be marginalized in positions where they have little influence."
Another conservative leader, the Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, asserted that the gay-rights bills likely to advance next year will infringe on the rights of those who condemn homosexuality.
"All Americans must be prepared to endure serious threats to their freedom of speech, their right to make employment decisions as business owners, and their religious freedom in the business world," Sheldon said.