The midterm elections that ended GOP control of both House and Senate turned on two overriding themes: the war in Iraq and corruption in Congress.
Now, beginning with leadership elections this week, both parties are out to show voters they got the message.
For Democrats, united in a keen desire not to slip back into the minority in 2008, a first step is the promise of a new style of leadership on Capitol Hill: open, bipartisan, and above reproach – and an agenda anchored in the needs of the average American family.
"Voters rejected the Bush agenda, but they haven't yet embraced us," said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who was elevated Tuesday to No. 3 in the Democratic leadership after chairing the party's senatorial campaign committee to a victory few of his colleagues believed would happen. "What we have here could vanish if we don't do the job."
What's missing from Democrats' ambitious early agenda, critics say, is a quick, clean, anticorruption element. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi promised last January to enact an ethics package – including a ban on all gifts from lobbyists, disclosure of earmarks, and a two-year wait before lawmakers leaving office can work as lobbyists – if Democrats took back the House. Pelosi aides say the presumptive House speaker wants an "Honest Leadership Open Government" package – details to be disclosed – to go through the committee process in the new Congress.
Both the House and Senate later passed versions of lobby reform last spring, but GOP leaders have yet to agree on terms for a conference to work out differences between the two bills, which will die at the end of the 109th Congress in December.
Both ethics and the Iraq war are emerging as key issues in an unexpectedly bitter race for the new House majority leader, the Democrats' second in command behind Ms. Pelosi.
In what is seen as an early test of leadership, Pelosi is publicly backing Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania over her current deputy, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, for the post. Representative Murtha's call for an immediate redeployment of US troops from Iraq helped mobilize the party's antiwar base in last week's election. Murtha charges that Mr. Hoyer's views on Iraq line up with those of President Bush.
In response, Representative Hoyer's supporters are reviving accounts of Murtha's less-than-decisive rejection of a bribe in the 1980 Abscam FBI sting operation. More recently, Murtha has battled allegations that he may have accepted favors from defense contractors.
"The fight between Murtha and Hoyer is a template for Democrats on the war and corruption," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Until this election, Murtha had an iconic status as an outspoken, truth-telling Democrat, and all of a sudden ethics has become a liability. It's an awkward position for Pelosi, whatever the outcome," he adds.
Most immediately, Murtha's opposition to ethics reform, including past brushes with ethics issues, open Pelosi to charges that she hasn't heard voters on the importance of cleaning up the culture of corruption in Washington.
House Democrats will decide between Murtha and Hoyer in a secret ballot Thursday.
"Future House Speaker Pelosi's endorsement of Representative Murtha, one of the most unethical members of Congress, shows that she may have prioritized ethics reform merely to win votes, with no real commitment to changing the culture of corruption," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group that took a lead in criticizing former GOP majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas over corruption charges.
Among Senate Democrats, meanwhile, the mood this week was jubilant as they voted for their leaders for the 110th Congress. This slate includes majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, majority whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, and conference secretary Patty Murray of Washington. Outgoing conference secretary Debbie Stabenow of Michigan replaces Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York – a move that presidential watchers view as another signal that the former first lady is preparing for a campaign for the Oval Office.
On the Republican side, there was suspense but little controversy, as the outgoing GOP majority promoted their whip, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to replace retiring Republican leader Bill Frist.
In a surprise move, Sen. Trent Lott, a former GOP Senate majority leader, won the whip race. It's the first time a Senate majority leader ran for a lower position, say Senate historians. "I'm doing the job I love the most: count the votes," Senator Lott said.
But stakes are higher – and the mood darker – among House Republicans. In a vote expected Friday, the GOP caucus chooses among John Boehner of Ohio, current majority leader, and challengers Mike Pence of Indiana and Joe Barton of Texas. Mr. Pence, a favorite of conservative commentators, says Republicans lost the majority because they forgot their principles, especially limited government.
Boehner explains the loss as "a referendum on the Bush administration and the war in Iraq," factors that are "now beyond our control." Republicans can regain the majority, he says, by holding Democrats accountable and "holding ourselves accountable" via ethics reform "with teeth."