national, politics, democratic majority
Susan Walsh/AP
House Oversight and Government
Reform Committee Chairman Rep.
Waxman, D-Calif.

Congressional Democrats Seek to Make Most of Increased Majority

January 19, 2009 07:58 AM
by Christopher Coats
With their largest majority in years, Congressional Democrats have been quick to push legislation that was openly rejected over the last two presidential terms.

Democrats Act Fast on Legislative Floor

Beginning with the very first vote of the 111th Congress, Democrats staked their claim to the new legislative session by bringing a vast land bill to the floor made up of 160 different bills vehemently opposed by Republican Senator Tom Coburn.

Dubbed the “Tomnibus” in honor of its most passionate detractor, the 66-12 vote marked the beginning of Democrats’ efforts to make the most of their new majority and new president.

In the House of Representatives, California’s Henry Waxman has not delayed in making the most of his new role as House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman, promising immediate action on a pollution reduction plan that has already irked the energy industry and the GOP.

“Be prepared for a battle,” Illinois Republican John Shimkus told Democrats, according to Bloomberg.

Democrats have already brought the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act back to the floor, after George W. Bush said he would veto both of the labor rights bills last year.

Mirroring similar dramatic shifts of power in 1994 and 2002, this year’s session is unique in that Democrats have the additional momentum of a new, and for now, popular president, and a Congressional majority as secure as any seen since Jimmy Carter.

The Democrats’ chances for legislative success have been further strengthened by a divided Republican Party, left struggling to find leadership and direction after significant losses in 2006 and 2008.

The split within the party has resulted in a tense, six-way struggle for the party’s next chairman, with each candidate holding significantly different views on which direction the party should take.

Historical Context: The Republican majority

In 1994, Congressional Republicans were able to use disappointment with a first-term Bill Clinton and the long-standing Democratic majority to sweep into power with a plan for legislation called the “Contract with America.”

Gaining majorities in both houses of Congress, as well as state offices across the country, the Newt Gingrich-led GOP seemed unstoppable in the face of a divided and disorganized Democratic Party.

The Republicans were unable to reign in the entire party behind each and every aspect of the Contract with America, however. In 1995, the Gingrich-led Republican majority steadily lost power and influence as the party faced the challenge of finding one voice on every issue.

Again in 2002, the Republican Party seized a significant majority after midterm elections left them in strong standing, bolstered by a popular wartime president.

The shift represented a long-held dream of a new Republican majority; Congressional leaders felt they had the influence and momentum to make their majority a permanent one.

But as Bush’s popularity waned, the GOP began to lose support. As voters went to the polls in 2002, 43 percent of the country said they aligned themselves with the GOP, dropping to 35 percent by 2007.

Opinion & Analysis: Unifying the Democratic agenda

Hoping to avoid the pitfalls that have tripped up earlier Congressional majorities, Democrats have tried to represent a unified front in the new year, but face divisions within the party that could potentially halt their momentum. The Wall Street Journal says the conservative Blue Dog Democrats are wary of increased federal spending, while Democrats from industrial and coal states fear that environmental efforts will be obstacles to a successful session.

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