The Politics of the Capitol's New Power Structure

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The Democrats have won Congress and for the next two years, they will compete with the Bush administration for power in Washington. What should we expect?


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Since voters upended the power equation in Washington on Tuesday, both Democrats and President Bush have been saying they got the message. They say they're ready to work together to get things done for the American people. Even though both sides have a real stake in proving to the country that they can cooperate and govern together, doing that may be another story.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: For the White House, there's a model for how to deal with the sudden loss of both houses of Congress. It happened to Bill Clinton in 1994. After he got over the shock he got down to work, busily triangulating and cutting deals with the Republican Congress on trade, welfare reform and the budget.

Leon Panetta was Clinton's chief of staff in this period. He wonders whether President Bush can switch gears after six years of legislating with his party in charge.

Mr. LEON PANETTA (Former White House Chief of Staff): He has not really been in a situation where he has to sit down and cut deals. I guess the only time he really had to do that was back when he was governor of Texas. Whether he can go back to that and really begin now to sit down and to try to resolve these issues with the Democrats is a real question mark.

LIASSON: Panetta asks the same question of the Democrats, who he says have gotten used to throwing grenades from their position in the minority. But, after six years of confrontation with the Bush White House, Democrats are savoring their newfound opportunities. And with two house of Congress, says Democratic consultant David Axelrod, they will be even more able to alter President Bush's initiatives, pass their own legislation and block judges.

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Democratic Consultant): For the last six years we've been in a position only to react. Now we're in a position to propose, and I think the agenda we propose will help frame the debate in 2008.

LIASSON: The Democrats' agenda is made up of items they could agree on, such as raising the minimum wage, passing the stem cell research bill, negotiating lower drug prices. It will be much harder for Democrats to find unity on other issues, like trade, tax cuts and above all, Iraq.

The Republicans may also have trouble coming together says former Congressman Vin Weber. Weber says coordinating with the White House is now a different kind of problem.

Mr. VIN WEBER (Former Congressman): The difficulty Republicans are going to have is that their interests may not coincide with President Bush's interests because the president, obviously, with two more years in office, needs to cooperate with congressional Democratic leadership to accomplish some things. And it may be that Republicans in the House and the Senate increasingly find themselves in need of differentiating themselves from the Democrats because they want to reestablish a clear identity for the Republican Party in anticipation of the '08 elections.

LIASSON: For the moment, however, Congressional Republicans are caught up in the post-defeat ritual of recrimination and bloodletting. Tony Fabrizio is a Republican consultant.

Mr. TONY FABRIZIO (Republican Consultant): He's got two fundamental factions now, particularly on the Hill. You've got the conservatives who feel that we didn't pay enough attention to the social moral issues and that didn't activate our base, and you've got more libertarian conservatives who feel that the party turned its back on the issues of spending. Those two factions now are going to be warring over what we focus on as we go forward as a party.

LIASSON: There will be changes in the Republican lineup. Ken Mehlman, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, will not return for a second term next year and lots of fingers are pointing at White House political advisor Karl Rove, whose vision for a permanent Republican majority suffered this week. Democrats made inroads among white Catholics, Hispanics and married mothers, the building blocks Rove was counting on.

David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, however, feels vindicated. He says voters didn't reject conservative principles of fiscal responsibility and lower taxes. On the contrary, he says, many Democrats who won on Tuesday embraced those same principles.

Mr. DAVID KEENE (American Conservative Union): What the Republicans paid the price for was not their vision, but their performance, and from that perspective it should be a wake up call to Republicans around the country that they've got to back to the values that brought them here in the first place. And I think that's going to happen. The Republican Caucus, after all, that comes in with the next Congress will be more conservative than the one that left because the bulk of those who were defeated were moderates.

LIASSON: And, with the elections of a new group of relatively conservative Democrats from swing districts, the political center of gravity now moves to the Democratic side of the aisle. The new political math in Washington offers both sides opportunities as they look toward 2008. Taking advantage of them will demand a lot of discipline and compromise.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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