WASHINGTON — THOUGH battered by their midterm electoral setback, congressional Democrats are digging in their cleats and organizing to play defense against Speaker Newt Gingrich and the resurgent GOP.
The Democratic strategy relies on unleashing hard-hitting House legislators such as Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, while tying up legislation in the more slow-moving Senate chamber. To this point, the strategy has certainly delayed, though not halted, major parts of the Republican ''Contract With America.''
''We can't roll over and play dead,'' says Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, minority leader and a key member of his party's defense. ''This minority is getting its sea legs.''
It has taken some weeks for the Democrats to jell as an opposition force. They're too used to controlling legislative power. Though Democrats were in the minority in the Senate less than a decade ago, they haven't been the lesser party in the House since 1954. No members are left from those days, and circumstances then were far different, anyway.
Recalls former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a member of the House when Democrats were last in the minority: ''Everybody expected the Democrats to regain the House, so the Republicans and [President] Eisenhower didn't push much. They were pretty passive.''
To learn defense, Democrats are thus drawing on an unexpected source: Republicans. Specifically, they're drawing on the same dilatory tactics that Republicans -- indeed, Speaker Gingrich and Senate majority leader Bob Dole of Kansas -- perfected while they were in the minority.
For instance, Democrats in the House are hitting Gingrich hard over his $4.5 million book deal with HarperCollins, a publisher owned by Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate who has major interests awaiting congressional action.
Gingrich has backed off accepting the advance, but Democrats want a full independent investigation, remembering all too well that the Georgian waged a pitbull campaign that felled Democratic Speaker Jim Wright in 1989, also over a book deal.
The often-inflammatory rhetoric Gingrich used when he was in the minority is now being matched by House Democrats. When Mr. Dingell, the longest serving member in the House, disapproved of a change to the balanced-budget amendment proposed by a GOP freshman last week, he went after the rookie with all the force of his 39 years in the institution.
''It was a sorry charade'' for legislation, he says, ''the kind of proposal you'd expect to see passed at a strawberry festival.''
Some Democrats worry that being overly obstructive, as Republicans charge, will hurt the party and the institution of Congress.
But others consider it their responsibility to check the Republicans at every turn, especially on such issues as amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget, which passed the House last week.
The rough and tumble, says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, shows the Democrats are rediscovering themselves.
''Some dogs think they're people,'' he says, ''until they look in a window and see another dog.'' The Republican agenda is reminding Democrats of what they stand for; they're talking about ''the decent things government does.''
Another part of the Democratic defense game plan is to take advantage of the differences between the House and Senate. The Senate prides itself on being a free-flowing chamber, unlike the more organized House; this means legislation can be bottled up in the Senate more easily.
Senator Byrd has long been a master of Senate rules and oratory. Though he is in the minority, in a chamber where the filibuster puts a premium on bipartisanship but also empowers the individual, when Byrd takes the floor Republicans must stand there and listen. When he's done talking, or enough members are tired of listening, business moves on.
''Byrd is the supercoach of the Democratic defense,'' Professor Baker says. ''He's standing there at the blackboard with the chalk in his hand.''
Across the Rotunda, the Democratic defense shows the importance of specialization in the House. The big defensive moves aren't always made by the same members, almost as if what the party is playing is less defense and more special-teams offense. House minority whip David Bonior, for instance, often takes the lead criticizing Gingrich, while Dingell works the House floor and Frank provides all-purpose news media quotes.
''I'd rather be on offense,'' Congressman Frank says. ''But while I'm on defense I'm going to have a good time.''