In new Senate, the middle rules
With Democrats holding the majority, moderates will be driving policy in Congress.
WASHINGTON — For Democrats, who swept back into power in both the House and Senate last week, the pledge to govern in a bipartisan way may not be postvictory rhetoric. At least in the Senate, it's a mandate of the math.
While an effective 51-49 majority allows Democrats to organize the Senate – Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernard Sanders of Vermont ran as independents – it is still nine votes short of the 60 votes now needed to advance controversial bills on issues ranging from taxes to the Iraq war.
"Nothing can be accomplished in this town unless it's on a bipartisan basis," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, after meeting with President Bush and Vice President Cheney at the White House on Friday.
"The only way the American people will know if President Bush is sincere, the Democratic Congress is sincere, is with results. And we're willing to give it a try," he added.
The terms of the Democrats' narrow victory make a politics of the center even more imperative. Most of the new Democrats in the Senate won by running as moderates or fiscal conservatives.
"They were carefully chosen not to reflect the liberal mainstream of the Democratic Party, but to reflect the more conservative mainstream of their states," says Rhodes Cook, a political analyst in Washington.
"It might be a return to the days when Democrats were technically a majority party, but when you put Republicans together with southern Democrats, they were the majority," he adds.
Then, there's Ben Nelson. Last year, the Nebraska Democrat voted against a majority of his party more than half the time, according to a survey by Congressional Quarterly. But so did Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R) of Rhode Island. The two men often canceled each other's vote.
However, this year, Chafee lost. If past is prelude, that means a 50-50 Senate on many votes, with Vice President Cheney, as Senate president, breaking ties.
While Senate Democrats are expected to lock arms over issues such as the minimum wage, there may be a new centrist coalition on issues including immigration, national security, and privacy rights.
Incoming freshmen Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota, Jon Tester in Montana, and Bob Casey in Pennsylvania defined themselves as moderate, independent voices, often at odds with Democrats in Washington. A former Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, Jim Webb upset Sen. George Allen (R) of Virginia on a campaign that showcased independence.
Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D) of Maryland, who will succeed retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D), was one of the few House Democrats willing to work with Republicans on issues such as pension reform.
Conservative activists say that the centrist base of the new freshman class will limit how far the national Democratic Party can advance a more radical agenda.
"If people ran as liberals, I would be afraid for my issue [cutting taxes]. But there are very few Democrats who won running as liberals against conservative Republicans," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
For six years of the Bush presidency, Democrats have focused on blocking GOP initiatives. The next two years will showcase that Democrats can also govern, say party leaders in both the House and the Senate.
Democrats plan to advance a legislative program in the first 100 days of the 110th Congress that includes increasing the minimum wage, passing all the 9/11 Commission recommendations, cutting the cost of student loans, lifting the 2003 ban on negotiating lower drug prices for seniors through Medicare, and promoting energy independence. They're also gearing up for hard-hitting investigations on issues ranging from the Iraq war to the nation's energy policy.
If the party can deliver only gridlock in the next Congress, they will quickly lose those moderate and independent voters who delivered last week's victory, say activists with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a centrist think tank.
"If Democrats are smart, they can make these new and 'returned' Democratic voters part of an expanded party and an enduring national majority," argues a DLC position paper, "What's next for Democrats?" released Nov. 10.
"That's why we should all be wary of intraparty arguments that Democrats did well simply by 'fighting' or maximizing partisan differentiation from the Republicans, or that they can paste together a majority by insisting on ideological unity and ignoring parts of the country or parts of the party – e.g., 'red states' – that call for a more diverse and inclusive message," the paper states.
"Make no mistake: Our joy today will vanish if we can't produce for the American people," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, who, as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, recruited and helped fund Democratic candidates in the 2006 election cycle.
"If we can keep our focus on the average American family, we will stay the majority for a generation," he added.
As a boxer in high school, Harry Reid – now in line to be majority leader of the US Senate in the 110th Congress – trained for the boxing ring by running up steep grades, with his coach following behind in his car.
"They knew that if they stumbled or fell and did not promptly get up and continue, there was a good chance they would be run over," says Senator Reid's coach and mentor, former Nevada Gov. Mike O'Callaghan.
It's good practice for his next job: leading what its members like to call the world's greatest deliberative body. Two former majority leaders describe the job as "herding cats."
"The election is over. It's time for a change. It's time for open government. It's time for transparency. It's time for results," Reid said after Republicans conceded the seat in Virginia, giving Democrats their majority last week.
It's a job he didn't expect. When it was clear that then-majority leader Tom Daschle had lost his reelection bid in 2004, Reid summoned the stunned caucus to regroup. "We've got to talk about the future of our caucus," he said to Deputy Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois, who credits Reid with "patching up some rifts in our caucus that had been around for a long time."
Known for his grasp of highly complex Senate procedure, Reid has always functioned better behind the scenes than in front of a camera. It was Reid who led the secret negotiations with Vermont Sen. James Jeffords over his defection from the GOP, which flipped control of the Senate to the Democrats in June 2001.
As minority leader after the 2004 elections, he often set majority leader Bill Frist back on his heels with surprise parliamentary moves. He famously called the Senate into "secret" session in November 2005 to demand that the Senate intelligence committee complete its stalled probe into whether the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had been politically manipulated.
In the past two years, he has repeatedly derailed Republican initiatives, including holding Democrats in line to block a GOP bid to tie a permanent repeal of the estate tax to a bill raising the minimum wage.
He's also one of the few senators who still practices the art of the filibuster. On Nov. 19, 2003, Reid stunned Frist and Senate Republicans by holding the floor for nine straight hours in a bid to defend the right to filibuster judicial nominations. Sustained by judicious sips of water, he read from his book about his hometown, "Searchlight: The Camp That Didn't Fail."
Reid has also made some celebrated errors, such as publicly boasting that Democrats had "killed the Patriot Act."
While critics have tried to link Reid to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff – Reid accepted nearly $70,000 in contributions from Abramoff's tribal clients – so far, charges of wrongdoing haven't stuck. But a disclosure last month by the Associated Press that Reid had violated Senate rules by failing to report a 2001 land transfer that later netted him $700,000 prompted Reid to amend his financial disclosure statements.
• First elected to the Senate: 1986
• Senate Democratic leader (2005-present)
• Senate Democratic whip (1999-2004)
• Chairman of Nevada Gaming Commission (1977-1981)
• Nevada Lt. Gov. (1971-1975)
• BA, Utah State University
• JD, George Washington University
• Wife; five children; 15 grandchildren
Source: The Associated Press