Democrats Savor Gains in Congress, but Bringing Change Won't be Easy

Leaders need to hold together a diverse party and forge a new relationship with President-elect Obama.


Even the warm afterglow of a historic victory doesn't mean Democrats will be able to stave off the inevitable intraparty disagreements. Pelosi is already juggling many factions: progressives keen to expand government programs; conservative Blue Dog Democrats who want to enforce budget discipline and attack the national debt; groups divided along racial and ethnic lines, such as the Congressional Black Caucus; and the Out of Iraq Caucus, which wants the war over—yesterday.

She'll have to balance the interests of veterans who run powerful committees with those of vulnerable freshman members, some from Republican enclaves. And the newcomers range from a pro-gun, pro-life fiscal conservative such as Bobby Bright, the mayor of Montgomery, Ala., to Dan Maffei of Syracuse, N.Y., a former congressional staffer who is a darling of the liberal blogosphere.

Meantime, Reid, having fallen short of the 60 Democrats needed to thwart GOP filibusters, will have to find partners to move legislation at a time when there are fewer moderate Republicans.

GOP splits. There's factionalism in the GOP, too. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who is often at odds with McConnell, called back-to-back Republican congressional losses beginning in 2006 a "very serious setback." He took aim at the $700 billion rescue package that followed other bailouts. "Republicans must admit the Wall Street bailouts were a trillion-dollar bust and immediately fight for free-market solutions that create jobs and increase freedom," he said. "This election reflects a failure of Republicans to keep their conservative promises."

In the end, it may take a magician to pass a major piece of legislation early on, which insiders insist is an Obama aim. It remains to be seen whether the consensus between parties on one fundamental point—the country has big problems—sparks action or stalemate.

American University's James Thurber, who directs its Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, is optimistic that despite the many minefields, the new order in Washington might just succeed for Democrats, given the nature of the new president. He expects Obama to take a multilateral approach not only to international affairs but also on domestic issues. "I see him listening closely to [his party's] leadership and the caucuses in the House and Senate," Thurber says. "There'll be push-back about what they wanted, and he'll mold it into something he wants and call it his. But he'll know he has their support ahead of time."

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