Boxer's rebellion and Democrats' new tone

Smarting from defeat, Senate minority leaders talk about values and let colleague play 'bad cop.'

Still smarting from the loss of their party leader in November's vote, Senate Democrats are setting a deliberately lower and softer profile at the start of the 109th Congress - except for the ones tossing bombs.

The leading flamethrower would be Sen. Barbara Boxer, who rocked the opening days of the session by initially blocking the presidential electoral vote count and, more recently, by ripping into Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice during her Senate confirmation bid.

The contrast between Senator Boxer's moves and the more modulated tones of the party's new Senate leadership team is partly a matter of personal style, but it also reflects the challenge that Democrats face as the minority party after an election that left many shellshocked. They want to expand their reach into the American electorate and avoid the "obstructionist" label, while reassuring core activists that the party is not going soft.

"It's the old good cop, bad cop routine: The leadership will take the high road, and others will aggressively oppose every move of the Bush administration," says Marshall Wittmann, a former GOP adviser now with the Democratic Leadership Council. "A sophisticated opposition doesn't take just one approach."

A former amateur boxer, Democratic leader Harry Reid did not come out swinging in the opening days of the new Congress, despite opportunities to do so. It was a bid to duck the charges of obstructionism that helped sink his predecessor, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, on Nov. 2. Instead, Reid and others at the top of the Democratic caucus are using the early days of the new Congress to first reestablish their own values and political roots.

Fighting back on values front

For Reid, it's growing up in Searchlight, Nev., a former mining town in the Mojave Desert. "The home that I was raised in had no inside toilet, no hot water. But you see, in America we all have a chance," he said this week, as he rolled out his party's agenda for this Congress. The aim of Senate Democrats, he said, is to "restore the promise of American by pursuing an agenda that honors the values behind it."

The new tone relates to personal styles but also to a tough political map in 2006, when Democrats will be defending 18 Senate seats, three more than the Republicans, many in strong Bush states.

"The Daschle loss sent a signal of the danger of being seen as obstructing for the sake of obstructing," says Charlie Cook of the Cook Report. "You can't control what every single member does," but leaders can benefit by "appearing to be reasonable," he adds.

Both Senator Reid and the new deputy leader, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, are experienced floor leaders and no strangers to tough political tactics and talk. But in the weeks since the Nov. 2 vote, they and other Democrats have also been exploring how to win back the trust of voters on "values" issues, especially in the South and states Bush won in the West and Midwest.

On the sensitive issue of abortion, Senator Durbin says Democrats are reassessing how they argue the case for abortion rights, likely to resurface in a number of GOP bills in the 109th Congress. "I know no one in public life who celebrates the number of abortions in this country," he says. "There is a sense among some of us that we need to step back and really measure the language we are using."

In an interview in his Senate leadership office last month, Senator Durbin takes out the 1863 prayer book that his grandmother brought over from Lithuania in 1911. Printed in Lithuanian, the book was outlawed in Czarist Russia. "She was protesting government interference in religious practice."

In the run-up to President Bush's State of the Union address next week, Democrats are laying the groundwork for their response in terms of values. The "ownership society" of the Republicans boils down to the notion that "we're all in this alone," Durbin said on Monday - referring in part to proposals for private accounts in Social Security. "That's wrong. There are many problems facing America which we need to face together, and not alone."

No apologies from Boxer

For Boxer, who led six other women House members up the steps of the Senate to protest the 1991 nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, the new Congress offers many opportunities to cut a stronger edge. No stranger to conflict, she told staff on election night that she wasn't "going to be afraid to stand alone."

"Little did I know that I was going to face that so quickly," she said in an interview Tuesday. Boxer says she discussed her objections to the presidential electoral tally with Reid before the Jan. 6 count. "No one tried to stop me," she said. And Democrats have since elevated election reform into their top 10 legislative priorities.

She is unapologetic about her questioning of Rice's nomination. "This is a real war that is causing real deaths and real injuries," she says. "We could get hit with a stack of new misstatements getting us into a new war. We have to be tough on holding people accountable."

"Airtime is her oxygen. For a politician who is a born opposer, this is prime time," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Some members are bridge builders; ... others are bomb throwers."

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