Democrats ready thorns on path to rosy GOP future; Majority Democrats array troops in House for battle over policies dear to party
Washington — Just when the new Republican President is downgrading his predecessor's foreign-policy emphasis on human rights, it is being upgraded by Democrats in Congress.
The party that controls the House of Representatives has defiantly voted to add "human rights" to the name of a foreign- affairs subcommittee.
It's a symbolic reminder to the Reagan administration that -- not only in foreign policy, but throughout the governance of the country -- there is a Democratic opposition in Congress determined to fight for its convictions.
Despite the pain of losing their majority in the Senate and 33 seats in the House, and the tame smiles with which they welcomed the new GOP occupant of the White House, Democrats on Capitol Hill are gamely regrouping their depleted ranks in readiness for the legislative battles that lie ahead.
They have broadened their leadership, redeployed their committee forces, begun to map strategy.
Watching these preparations with growing concern from across the partisan aisle, one senior House Republican warns the GOP against postelection complacency: "The Republicans do not control everything here in Washington."
One governmental institution they manifestly do not control is the House of Representatives, which promises to be the main- spring of Democratic opposition to Reagan administration initiatives during the next two years.
House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts, now the government's highest-ranking elected Democrat, welcomed the new administration with a conciliatory slogan: "American comes first; party comes second."
Yet Mr. O'Neill remains a blustery partisan whose instinctive urban Democratic liberal resistance to much of the Reagan laissez-faire conservatism is expected to inevitably erupt through any veneer of bipartisan comity.
The Speaker has taken precautionary steps since the election to cement the loyalty of his troops on the party's growing rightward flank. Three of the House majority's top five leaders now are political moderates -- majority leader Jim Wright of Texas, caucus chairman Gillis W. Long of Louisiana, and chief deputy whip William V. Alexander Jr. of Arkansas.
Democrats in both houses, meanwhile, are realigning their committee resources for maximum counterweight against the resurgent Republicans.
In the House, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of about 5 to 4, they have insisted on keeping more lopsided ratios on four key committees: more than 2 to 1 on Rules, nearly 2 to 1 on Ways and Means, and 3 to 2 on Appropriations and Budget.
Two dependably combative Democrats have moved into committee posts seen in need of shoring up.
In the Republican-run Senate, Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts has switched from the Judiciary Committee to become ranking Democrat on the Labor and Human Resources Committee -- anticipated battleground for Reagan efforts to prune Democratic social programs.
In the House, Rep. Daniel Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois was persuaded by the leadership to take the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, keeping it from occasionally maverick Rep. Sam M. Gibbons (D) of Florida.
With wary eyes on the Reagan White House, liberal Democrats have reinforced their ranks on two House panels.
Two new liberal subcommittee chairmen have been installed at the House Foreign Affairs Committee. One -- Rep. Michael D. Barnes of Maryland -- unseats a conservative -- Rep. Gus Yatron of Pennsylvania -- deemed too weak as chairman of the inter- American affairs subcommittee to spearhead opposition to Reagan policies on Latin America.
The other new chairman is Rep. Howard Wolpe of Michigan, who defeated moderate Rep. Daniel A. Mica of Florida to head the Africa panel.
On the House Judiciary Committee, three of its six new Democrats are staunch liberals who can be expected to protect the party's interests in looming battles such as those over constitutional amendments on abortion and a balanced budget.
With their troops now largely in place on Capitol Hill, the Democrats' legislative strategy is beginning to take shape.
One device appears to be to try seizing the initiative from the President by rushing forward with Democractic versions of proposals anticipated to come later from the administration. This approach has been previewed on budget cuts and social security overhaul.
Another stratagem: instead of inflexibly defending traditionally Democratic social programs, now under fire as wasteful and too costly, work to reform and streamline them to save them from being abolished altogether by Reagan budget-cutters