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Democrats face a tug-of-war in agenda planning
San Francisco Chronicle


October 30, 2006

WASHINGTON -- It is an article of faith among many liberals that Democrats must advance a bold agenda if they are to win a majority in the House of Representatives Nov. 7.

From expanded health care and scaling back President Bush's tax cuts to withholding money from the Pentagon's war budget and investigating high crimes and misdemeanors, there is enormous pent-up energy to accomplish what could not be done during 12 years in the minority.




Yet as Democratic leaders, including would-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, gear up for an increasingly plausible scenario, they face competing demands likely to temper their liberal ambitions.

The new Democratic majority, should it occur, will consist of a fresh crop of moderate and conservative members whose elections will have been won in part by distancing themselves from the party's progressive wing.

Faced with possible Republican control of the Senate, the president's veto pen and most likely a narrow edge in the House, many Democrats insist they must moderate their agenda and reach out to Republicans to expand their majority and improve their chances of winning the White House in 2008.

"The only thing worse than not taking back the House would be taking it back for one term," warned Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., an officer in the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 37 conservative and moderate House Democrats. "I think even the most 'liberal' person in our caucus understands that. There's folks who may not believe that things are going as fast as they want them to go, but they understand we have to be pragmatists."

That view is certainly not reflected on conservative talk radio, where there are warnings about a virtual revolution if liberals such as New York's Charles Rangel (Ways and Means) and Michigan's John Conyers (Judiciary) take over committee leadership posts and Pelosi exports "San Francisco values" to every district in the country.

Thompson's view may not be fully embraced by the Democratic base, which believes its loud and persistent protest of Republican leadership is responsible for the party's rising stock.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., said a Democratic majority would allow the party to thrust into the national spotlight big issues such as getting troops out of Iraq and offering universal health.

"It's an open opportunity for Democrats to stand up," said Woolsey, who is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group of 62 liberal members.

Woolsey said she would support a measure to cut portions of the Pentagon's budget and censure Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld if it would speed up U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

"We can't run an election against what (Bush) is doing in Iraq and not do something about it once we get the majority back," Woolsey said.

Pelosi's challenge is to navigate a course that will satisfy the liberals who form the party's base and conservatives whose success is critical to the party retaining its power. It is a juggling act that has already tested Pelosi's skills as House minority leader since her election to that post by the caucus after the November 2002 campaign, but one that will grow much more difficult and consequential if Democrats are in the majority.

The 66-year-old Pelosi's personal ideology and most of her San Francisco constituents are more closely aligned with the liberals, yet the pragmatism that has thus far marked her role as a party leader has steered her to promote a more centrist course.

"If we win ... we will have to govern from the middle," Pelosi said. "Our guiding principles will be to foster integrity, civility and fiscal responsibility."

For now, Pelosi is promoting a legislative strategy with broad appeal should Democrats capture the 15 seats they need to regain a majority they lost in 1994.

If chosen by the Democrats as their leader, Pelosi has pledged that on her first day as speaker she will enact rules to "break the link between lobbyists and legislation," and on the second day she has called on the House to adopt all 41 recommendations made by the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission. Within the first 100 legislative hours, Pelosi has pledged to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, cut interest rates on student loans in half, allow the government to negotiate directly with the pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices for Medicare patients, expand federal backing of stem cell research, and end subsidies to big oil.

The legislation probably would draw support from the entire Democratic caucus and put an interesting test to Republicans and Bush, who has vetoed just one bill during his presidency.

More of the Democratic agenda is contained in a glossy 25-page book put out by Pelosi ( and includes specific proposals such as doubling the size of the military's special forces, requiring automakers to build more cars that can use ethanol, expanding the research and development tax credit, and matching up to $1,000 in contributions made by middle-income workers into retirement plans, to vague policy objectives such as a pledge to "eliminate Osama bin Laden."

The plan does not include broader liberal goals such as universal health care or withdrawal from Iraq, or explain how to boost spending without raising taxes or adding to the budget. Nor does it address what sort of inquiries might be ordered by legislators such as Reps. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles or John Dingell of Michigan, who would be given subpoena power and vastly expanded resources as committee chairmen.

With Bush as president, some Democrats caution against high expectations.

"It is important to keep in mind that if Democrats win the House, and even the Senate, we're still the opposition party. We're not in a position to run the country," said Bruce Reed, a former top adviser to President Bill Clinton and now president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

"The most we can hope for is to force a negotiation over how the country is run, and that is a significant improvement over our current lot in life, but it's not the same as setting the agenda," Reed said.


Chronicle Washington Bureau writer Zachary Coile contributed to this report.
E-mail Marc Sandalow at msandalow(at)
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