Democrats Find Lessons In GOP Reign - New Majority Is Mindful Of Rivals' Mistakes, Successes
Democrats preparing to take control of Congress for the first time in over a decade are looking to the Republican takeover in 1995 as an object lesson of what to emulate and what to avoid. They hope to match the legislative energy of the Newt Gingrich era while avoiding at all costs the partisan pitfalls that eventually soured voters on the GOP.
The majority party that takes control of the House and Senate in January will look significantly different from the party that was swept from power in the 1994 elections. The old-guard liberals and staunch union supporters in control then are giving way to a new generation of moderates with more temperate legislative ambitions.
[T]he long-banished Democrats hope to prove their bona fides as lawmakers and challenge a president from the other party to accept their agenda, a game plan taken straight from the Gingrich era's "Contract With America."
But Democrats say they will avoid the overreaching, arrogance and rancorous partisanship that left them virtually powerless on Capitol Hill and spawned an era of political corruption and influence-peddling. Democratic leaders vowed last week to pass major ethics reforms early in the new 110th Congress, and to offer Republicans seats at the negotiating table and ample opportunities to amend bills on the floor -- opportunities that were denied their party.
House Democratic leaders have put forward an ambitious opening salvo for January, a 100-hour legislative blitz that includes raising the minimum wage, boosting alternative-energy research and repealing tax breaks for oil companies. They also want to beef up seaport screening, expand college tuition assistance, boost stem cell research and allow the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices under Medicare.
House Democrats also hope to approve rules changes to limit the influence of lobbyists, offer the minority party more input on legislation, curb home-state pet projects in spending bills and, possibly, give the District of Columbia voting rights on the House floor.
But once the 100 hours or so pass, pressure will mount on Democrats to confront what many liberals see as the misdeeds of Bush and the Republican Party. The party's base is clamoring for Democrats to repeal tax cuts skewed to the affluent, to revisit the new law authorizing military tribunals for terrorism suspects and to investigate the run-up to the Iraq invasion.
To some Democrats, such calls raise memories of the aggressive -- and ultimately self-destructive -- stance that House Republicans took when they stormed to power in the 1994 election and later voted to impeach President Bill Clinton, only to see Clinton acquitted in the Senate.
"We increased our market share by going where the market was, to moderate, even Republican districts," said Rep. John S. Tanner (Tenn.), a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, which has grown to become one of the largest House Democratic factions. "If we're going to hold and consolidate that, we have to understand the reality that the face of the Democratic Caucus has changed from where it was in late '80s and early '90s."
MacKinnon, an aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) during the 1990s, said Democrats must learn from Republican mistakes.
Number one, you don't have a mandate," he said, addressing Democrats. "The American people were just sick of the other side, so don't turn things upside down, because they won't put up with it. . . . And guess what, the American people do want you to work with the other side. Republicans didn't. They let arrogance rule the day, and it hurt them in the end."