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Politics | Lame-duck lawmakers slash and spend under low-key new leadership

Issue: "Iraq: Fallujah's fallen," Nov. 27, 2004

Two weeks after historic elections that decimated Democratic power on Capitol Hill, lawmakers returned to Washington for a week of housekeeping. They had to choose leaders, spend billions of dollars, and argue over differing versions of House and Senate bills-all the things that Congress always does. Still, the session was remarkable for more than just its short duration. It was also remarkably quiet, as chastened Democrats struggled to find their voice and define their values.

On Nov. 16, Democratic senators meeting behind closed doors chose Nevada's Harry Reid as their new leader. Tom Daschle, though still technically in charge until the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3, allowed his former No. 2 to take the spotlight, using the lame-duck session as a test run for what is certain to be a difficult two years. With only 44 senators on his side of the aisle, Mr. Reid will lead the smallest Democratic minority since Herbert Hoover sat in the Oval Office.

Though reliably liberal on issues ranging from tax increases to gay marriage, Mr. Reid bucks his party by opposing both gun control and abortion on demand. With 17 of his fellow Democrats up for reelection in 2006, he will likely try to avoid the obstructionist label that Republicans pinned so successfully on his predecessor.

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After 10 years of Mr. Daschle's confrontational style of leadership, Mr. Reid's low-key approach on his first day in power came as something of shock. Instead of tossing rhetorical bombshells, he met quietly with party leaders, including former presidential candidate John Kerry, to set priorities and map strategy for the coming term.

Experts predicted he would work largely behind the scenes, leaving the angry soundbites to others. "My guess is the media's cameras will stampede to Nancy Pelosi," said William Connelly, a politics professor at Washington and Lee University. The House Democratic leader is "articulate, outspoken, principled. She'll be the one to sharpen the difference between the two parties."

Indeed, a kind of grudging cooperation was evident right away on the Senate side, as Democrats bit their tongues and Republicans tried to be magnanimous. The main order of business was providing money for nine Cabinet-level departments and agencies that have limped along with temporary funding since the new fiscal year began on Oct. 1.

Earlier this year, President Bush vowed to slash the federal budget deficit in half through sharp cuts in non-defense spending. Unsure who would win on Election Day, both parties were loath to make cuts in popular programs like education and healthcare.

But now, with an even larger GOP majority headed to Washington in January, Democrats appear resigned to cuts in their favored programs. Likewise, they seem ready to capitulate on political confrontations cherished by their electoral base. For instance, after delaying passage of a spending bill earlier in the fall by attaching a provision to block the administration's new rule on overtime pay, Democratic leaders signaled their willingness to back down on the issue-much to the dismay of their allies in big labor.

That hardly means the lame-duck session will be smooth sailing for the president, however. He wants generous new spending for space exploration, community colleges, and a program to export democracy to the developing world. But lawmakers know that funding the administration's priorities would require even deeper cuts in some of their own pet projects, and few are signaling a willingness to roll over for the president.

Though the Senate was expected to quickly slash about $8 billion in spending demanded by the White House, some of those cuts are certain to come from Mr. Bush's favored programs. The president's success in guarding his spending priorities during the two-week lame-duck session may prove a good predictor of his success in the much larger spending battles to come, including multitrillion-dollar overhauls of the tax and Social Security systems.

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