We Won! Now What The Heck Do We Do?
A rousing congressional victory fraught with traps
One hard job-winning-is over. Now for the much harder job-governing. Flushed with their narrow wins in the House and Senate, Democratic Party leaders couldn't strike a bipartisan chord fast enough: "Partnerships," said House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, "not partisanship." In his first post-election press conference, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the master tactician behind the House victory, called sternly for governing from the "vital center"-five times. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader-elect, chimed in: "It's a time for results."
That won't be as easy as it sounds. Democrats hold a relatively modest 229-to-196-seat majority in the House (with 10 seats undecided at the end of last week) and an advantage of just one in the Senate. The president, of course, still has his trusty veto pen. To get results then, Democrats will have to hold the centrist and left wings of the party together and work with Republicans if they're going to get the kind of results they'll need to impress voters in '08.
The new crop of Democrats is a pretty varied lot-Iraq veterans, antiwar candidates, social conservatives, gun-control foes, fiscal hawks. In the House, Democrats picked up at least 29 seats, many of which are in traditionally red districts in states like Indiana and North Carolina that President Bush won handily in 2004. In the Senate, much the same is true, with new Democratic members from Montana, Missouri, and Virginia. Centrist Democrats, like the New Democrats and the Blue Dogs, will swell in numbers by up to around 20. Can the leadership deal with such a polyglot group and find a way to persuade them all to work together? "Pelosi is from a very liberal district and is a very liberal congressperson," says Democratic lobbyist Thomas Hale Boggs Jr. "But she is a very street-smart politician, and she is a pragmatist."
Despite their enthusiastic show of unity last week, some Democrats in the House are already squabbling. "Everyone recognizes why we're in the majority," says Matt Bennett, a Democratic strategist. "It's because of moderates." Not so fast, counters the left's Robert Borosage, head of the progressive Campaign for America's Future. The election results, he says, reflect "the increasing power of a populist anti-[Iraq]-war wing of the party." Indeed, the election of majority leader-a contest likely to pit John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Vietnam vet who called for troop redeployments, against current Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who's more cautious on Iraq-is already exposing the deep tensions within the party. "It is a real division," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University, "but I don't think it is insurmountable."
Others aren't so sure. While there may be some wrangling about the direction of the party, many of those in line to become committee chairmen are liberal old warhorses. Among them: 51-year House veteran John Dingell is set to take over the Energy and Commerce Committee; 31-year member Henry Waxman will chair the House Government Reform Committee; 25-year veteran Barney Frank is set to take over the committee that oversees Wall Street policy. "The American people want Democrats to provide real accountability to the Bush administration, not political payback," Waxman tells U.S. News. "There is an enormous difference between the two, and we'll stick to accountability."
Drug safety. Sounds good, but that lineup is certain to keep at least some moderate Democrats awake at night. Dingell, for one, has already talked about investigating drug-safety methods at the Food and Drug Administration, and Waxman has mentioned oversight of prescription drugs, the reconstruction of Iraq, homeland security, and government contracts let after Hurricane Katrina. Rep. Ike Skelton, who is likely to head the House Armed Services Committee, wasn't shy about his first objective: He's going to re-establish a subcommittee on oversight and investigations that was abolished after Republicans took control in 1994.
Pelosi and the Democratic leadership vow to pass their Six for '06 plan within the first 100 hours. It's an ambitious agenda that includes increasing the minimum wage by $2.10, to $7.25, negotiating lower prices for Medicare prescription drugs, implementing all the 9/11 commission's recommendations, making college tuition affordable, ending tax breaks for oil companies, and increasing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The agenda "is going to be strategic and pragmatic," Rep. George Miller tells U.S. News. "It is a far more unified [Democratic] caucus than in any time in recent memory." A likely first would be the minimum wage bill. Sen. Edward Kennedy reiterated his determination to get it to $7.25. His plan had bipartisan support in the House and Senate but was scuttled by the Republican leadership. The president has signaled that he could work with Democrats on the issue.
As for Republicans in the House and Senate, they've got their own problems. House Speaker Dennis Hastert will not seek to continue in a leadership position, and Majority Leader John Boehner is running for the top position in the minority against Rep. Joe Barton and Rep. Mike Pence, the conservative head of the 100-member Republican Study Committee, who has pushed for a return to core fiscal conservative principles and against earmarks that sneak pet spending projects into appropriation bills. "It's going to be difficult for the current leadership or a semblance of the leadership to credibly say we're going to change," Rep. Jeff Flake, a prominent fiscal conservative, tells U.S. News. "Frankly, we've had our chances in the past, and we've squandered them."
Many Republican moderates, like New Hampshire's Charles Bass, lost last week, which could strengthen the party's conservative ranks. In the Senate, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell is set to become minority leader, but a race has opened up for the No. 2 position between a resurgent Trent Lott of Mississippi, the former majority leader, and Tennessee's Lamar Alexander. Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, the incoming majority leader, says, "McConnell is a fierce partisan, and he's a strong conservative, but Senator Reid believes he is someone he can do business with."
For Democrats, the test is clear. "We have to remind the American people we can govern," says Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a leading centrist. "Our majority has to be ensured so we can win in 2008." Just days after claiming their historic victory, Democrats already are worrying about the next round.
With Danielle Knight and Kevin Whitelaw
This story appears in the November 20, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.