Minority party eyes a boost in discipline

Democrats urged to stand firmer

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / January 1, 2004

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WASHINGTON -- Thwarted by rules changes, outvoted on most major bills, rebuffed in attempts to cut deals, and finally derided by one of their party's presidential candidates as "GOP lite," the Democrats in Congress couldn't wait for 2003 to be over.

But 2004 brings a new challenge: Can a party that many believe has spent nine years biding its time until it returns to the majority remake itself as an effective opposition?

As the calendar turns, an increasing number of party voters are calling for the Democrats to act more like the Republicans across the aisle: Disciplined, aggressive, and reluctant to cut deals that water down their core issues.

"I think we have been much too nice to the Republicans," said Peter Fenn, a Democratic consultant. "We've said, `All right. You're in charge. Let's see what you can do.' Well, we've seen what they've done."

Democrats must "take Bush straight on" on issues such as pork barrel spending, the deficit, foreign policy, and jobs, Fenn said.

Jenny Backus, a consultant formerly with the Democratic National Committee, agrees: "It's slowly sinking in. There's nothing like being in the wilderness to sharpen up your survival skills."

Still, the party showed only fleeting moments of discipline in 2003, some of them undercut by the Republicans and others by fellow Democrats. Split on Iraq, the Democrats have failed to win support for a serious investigation of prewar intelligence. The Senate Democrats' most successful effort to block a GOP priority -- their filibuster of the energy bill -- was opposed by their own leader.

By contrast, Republican leaders have used parliamentary rules and the perks of the leadership to their advantage, even through they hold only a sliver of a majority in the Senate and a modest 23-vote edge in the House.

They have delayed floor votes when they did not have the support they needed, keeping the decision on the Medicare bill open for an unprecedented three hours last month while they badgered reluctant GOP lawmakers into backing the bill. They crafted the Medicare and energy bills without substantial Democratic input.

Republican leaders have enforced their discipline by punishing those who disagree with them. Moderate Republicans are marginalized. Representative Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut and a chief sponsor of campaign overhaul legislation opposed by his party's leaders, was denied a committee chairmanship and reports being shunned by fellow Republicans at a party retreat.

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have chosen to pursue a "big tent" philosophy of accommodating members of varying ideologies, from California liberals to Southern "blue dog" conservatives, and have often failed to present a united front.

Former House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt, for example, stood beside President Bush at the White House when the president announced the language of the resolution authorizing force against Iraq -- a document many Democrats felt needed to be more narrowly written.

The Senate's Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, refused to support two filibusters Democrats mounted against the Medicare bill and the energy bill. The energy bill -- criticized as a multibillion-dollar giveaway to the energy industry -- ultimately was stymied. But some Democrats, most notably presidential candidate Howard Dean, are saying that the party has not been tough enough in standing up to Bush and congressional Republicans.

"Some of Dean's criticism has been justified," said Representative Martin T. Meehan, Democrat of Lowell. "In some instances, the Democratic response on a host of issues hasn't been clear enough."

Daschle, facing a potentially tough reelection campaign in South Dakota, has been reluctant to alienate any in-state supporters, some of whom would benefit from the energy bill. While there is no official challenger to Daschle's leadership, some in the party worry that he's been more of a manager than a leader.

Democrats are starting to show more moxie in the House, with limited success. The new minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, whipped the overwhelming majority of House Democrats into voting against the Medicare prescription drug bill, characterizing the vote as a measure of party loyalty. Pelosi lost after Republicans persuaded two members of their party to switch their votes, but most Democrats were nonetheless pleased with Pelosi's burst of discipline.

House Democrats intend to continue the tactic when Congress returns later this month, said Pelosi's spokesman, Brendan Daly. "It's always a struggle because of the [mixed] ideology of the caucus," Daly said. But on key votes, Pelosi will make it clear to members that "we need you to be with us," he said.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, worked closely with Republicans on Medicare and education legislation, but ended up thundering about GOP betrayal in both efforts: The Medicare bill got rewritten in a House-Senate conference committee, and Bush failed to provide promised funding for the education bill.

Kennedy now says he will "pre-conference" bills before votes to make sure Republicans don't rewrite them.

Still, the party is clearly hindered by a lack of a forum; with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House, Democrats are left without a clear leader and no official vehicle to challenge the other party.

For example, Democrats have been unable to get a floor vote on a proposal to deny federal contracts to US companies that locate abroad to avoid paying US taxes. The minority party also lacks the power to call hearings, depriving Democrats of a public opportunity to question the administration.

The presidential candidates, meanwhile, are feuding over the direction of the party as a whole. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, has urged the party to move toward the political middle, while Dean has dismissed the moderate Democratic Leadership Council as "the Republican wing of the Democratic Party." And Dean has criticized some congressional Democrats as "GOP lite."

Democrats will probably have to wait until they have a de facto presidential nominee to anoint a leader of the party, Meehan said. He predicted that Democrats would rally around the eventual nominee, despite the primary-season infighting. And the primary elections themselves will help define the party, he said.

Eric Hauser, a consultant who worked with former Democratic senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, said the party is too full of competing ideologies to put forward a unified message -- which he sees as in part the result of the presidency of Bill Clinton, who advocated a "third way" approach.

"There are different voices, different impulses, different power centers," Hauser said of the post-Clinton Democrats. "It also shows that the legacy Bill Clinton left wasn't much of one."