Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008 | 2 a.m.
President Bush emerged from his 2004 reelection and famously said that he had amassed quite a bit of political capital in winning a second term — and he intended to spend it.
Voters consolidated the power of Democrats in Washington on Tuesday in ways unseen in years, but party leaders have been reluctant to do such a victory dance.
These are different times.
President-elect Barack Obama spoke about the long road ahead.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi celebrated her party’s widened majority in the House by saying “the country needs to be governed from the center.”
And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who faces particular challenges leading his chamber as he begins his own reelection campaign, said, “People are going to see us working together.”
“I’m going to lead very carefully,” Reid said by phone early Wednesday morning as most revelers were headed home from the Democrats’ victory party, “and do as much as I can in a bipartisan basis.”
To be sure, elections often bring promises of newfound cooperation, which crumble as soon as the first difficult decision leaves both sides digging in and unwilling to compromise. But in the Senate, compromise will be essential if the nation is to move forward on legislation.
As the new Congress convenes next year, the Senate becomes legislative last stop between what some believe could be the potentially liberal bookends of Pelosi’s House and Obama’s White House as Democrats fulfill campaign promises.
Because Senate rules require coalitions to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to pass many bills – unlike the House, where a simple majority rules — Reid has a great ability to shape a final bill before it is sent for Obama’s signature.
Bills on economic stimulus, health care or energy policy – all cornerstones of Obama’s agenda and campaign speeches by congressional candidates this fall – cannot be done by Democrats alone.
Despite picking up five Senate seats on Tuesday and with several races still undecided, Democrats do not seem poised to reach the magic 60. Achieving that number of seats would have given Reid greater power to pass bills over Republican obstruction by filibusters – which grew to record levels in the current Congress.
Democrats hold 51 seats currently. With 56 seats under Democratic control, Reid should have an easier time avoiding filibusters. He told National Public Radio on Wednesday morning that after the results of the election, he doubts the filibuster will remain such a preferred obstruction tool. “That power is long since gone.”
But Reid still needs to find Republicans willing to come to his side, which could be easier in some cases and more difficult in others.
Here are a few examples of bills that could emerge in the new Congress.
• Economic stimulus: Late this fall, as unemployment shot up, Democrats sought to pass a $61 billion package of public works spending, expanded jobless benefits and other aid to stimulate the economy away from recession.
The bill quickly passed the House, but burned out in the Senate on a vote of 52-42. Five Republican senators joined Democrats to vote for the bill, but Reid lost two of his Democrats to the opposition.
Getting to 60 now could be easier with a worsened economy and five more Democrats in the Senate, though one of the Republican supporters, Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, was defeated Tuesday.
• Union card check: Legislation to allow unions to organize without a secret ballot, one of the top priorities of the labor movement, failed in the Senate last year on a vote of 51-48. All Democrats present voted yes, and one Republican crossed over. Reid presumably would have a shorter reach across the aisle now, with his own ranks bolstered with potential supporters.
Republicans argued in the campaign that Democrats would push an intensely liberal agenda. Pelosi scoffed Tuesday when she was asked if the new House was going to tilt left.
She said the country must govern from the middle, as Democrats have done this session. She said the Democratic Congress had pursued an agenda that was also important to Republicans, passing bills to raise the minimum wage, expand college funding and require automakers to build more fuel-efficient cars.
Republicans say those measures passed only after they were able to make changes, such as amending the minimum wage bill in the Senate to add a tax break for small businesses that may suffer financially paying workers higher wages.
One Republican aide said Wednesday that despite Democratic talk of bipartisanship, one of their first post-election moves will likely be to reintroduce the economic stimulus bill Republicans rejected.
“They said the same thing last year — then came at us with 30 Iraq votes,” the aide said, referring to the House’s repeated attempts to withdraw troops from the Iraq war, virtually all of which were defeated in the Senate.
Still, others say the historic election has brought an opportunity for a new era of cooperation in Washington.
“We have a lot of trust right now,” said J.P. Fielding, a spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which poured millions of dollars into Republican Senate races in hopes of stopping Democratic ascension. “We certainly welcome the idea of a leader who would bring together a diversity of ideas.”
Reid will be negotiating this terrain as he is expected to begin his own campaign for reelection in 2010 and Republicans nationally target him for defeat.
When Reid took the stage Tuesday night at the Democratic victory party in Washington, he said the mandate that delivered Obama to the presidency and expanded Democratic control over the House and Senate was “not a mandate for an ideology or a party.”
He said the election was “a mandate for hope. A mandate to stop fighting over the things that divide us and start working for the things that can get done.”