Come January, Democrats in Congress will be back in the saddle they occupied for a quarter century until 1980, when Ronald Reagan came to town. With strapping majorities in both the House and the Senate, Democrats will largely determine what bills will be considered by the 100th Congress, and when.
Democratic senators such as Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio will become committee chairmen. Other Democratic senatorial leaders - such as Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the present minority leader who most likely will become majority leader - will once again be in the national spotlight.
President Reagan will have to bargain with the Democratic leadership if he wants to get anything accomplished.
``The Reagan revolution is over,'' chortled retiring House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill after it became obvious that Tuesday's elections had swapped the six-seat Republican Senate majority for a 10-seat Democratic majority and added slightly to the Democrats' already lopsided 73-vote majority in the House.
But Reagan has not become a ``lame duck'' as a result of Tuesday's defeat. Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford all faced Congresses with Democrats in control of both chambers. In fact, the politics of Capitol Hill argue against a lurch to the left or the right, and just as most Republican victories during the last six years have come with the help of Democrats, so will Democratic victories require the cooperation of congressional Republicans and the White House.
The President did not always get what he wanted from the Republican Senate. Republicans teamed with Democrats in the 99th Congress to slam the breaks on his five-year, $1.4 trillion military buildup. Senate Republicans refused to pare domestic spending by as much as Reagan asked to bring the deficit in line with targets set by the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget law. A party-line vote saved the administration's controversial nomination of judicial conservative Daniel Manion to the United States Court of Appeals. But Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues in overriding a presidential veto of sanctions against South Africa.
``I would hope that for the most part it will be a bipartisan Senate,'' said outgoing Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas. ``It has been for the past few years.''
Senator Byrd, who will become the majority leader if he survives a challenge for the Senate Democratic leader's post from at least one contender, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana, promises that the new Democratic Senate will be ``moderate'' and ``middle of the road.''
A number of the expected committee chairmen are Southern conservatives who have worked closely with Republican chairmen as ranking minority members. They are expected to head such key committees as those dealing with the budget, appropriations, commerce, and energy. But there will be some striking differences: The Senate Judiciary Committee will either be chaired by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware or Senator Kennedy. Both are vocal civil libertarians set against the administration's judicial philosophy. Both would be expected to lead a charge against any nominee to the federal judiciary whose credentials appeared wanting. ``The President will need to be more professional than partisan in his nominations,'' Byrd says.
Some White House initiatives that have squeaked through the Senate recently are likely to be reversed. The Senate voted 53 to 47 to extend military aid to the rebels fighting Nicaragua's Sandinista regime. It is unlikely that the 100th Congress will approve additional aid. And the Senate is likely to reconsider some of the binding arms control measures the Republican Senate jettisoned this year.
In addition, the new Democratic Senate will be more apt to link arms with the Democratic House on a trade bill, which the White House has furiously opposed, and slap import limits on foriegn traders. It will be more receptive to organized labor's push for a higher minimum wage and additional benefits for new parents.
But the No. 1 topic for the new, Democrat-ruled Congress is likely to be the federal deficit. Gramm-Rudman dictates a deficit some $60 billion lower than the anticipated deficit for the current fiscal year. It is a challenge to which no lawmaker knows the precise solution, and the solution, whatever it is, is now at the Democrats' doorstep.