Democrats flooded into Congress Nov. 7 promising bipartisan action to move the country in a new direction. But swift contention over the party's top leadership positions betrays a pressing need to build consensus within its own ranks first.
Freshly elected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi struggled to mask her disappointment following the rejection of John Murtha for the post of House majority leader-a direct affront to Pelosi in response to her first formal move to set an agenda. Rather than deliver the California congresswoman's endorsed choice, Democratic representatives handed the No. 2 spot to Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Pelosi's most bitter party rival. The 149-86 vote for the more moderate Hoyer suggests division among House Democrats over whether to follow Pelosi's far-left program. It also rebuffs the anti-war calls for immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq that Murtha champions.
Pelosi called the election of Hoyer "stunning" but attempted to minimize her past animosity toward the Maryland congressman: "As we say in church, let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with us."
Meanwhile in the Senate, allegations of ties to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff sullied the coronation of newly elected majority leader Harry Reid. The Nevada Senator quickly denied charges that he requested $30,000 of campaign contributions from Abramoff's clients. But the mere appearance of such headlines harms Democratic efforts to portray the party as a sanitary replacement for Republicans.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who will serve as majority whip when the 110th Congress convenes in January, has also struggled to keep his name clean from controversy. A polarizing figure with little bipartisan appeal, Durbin has compared U.S. interrogation techniques of terrorists to those used in Nazi Germany and Soviet gulags-this from a politician with a 100 percent rating from the pro-abortion group NARAL.
Senate Republicans matched such leadership appointments with a master of special-interest fundraising in Mitch McConnell and a once-disgraced political wash-up in Trent Lott. McConnell, a 22-year veteran from Kentucky, faced no opposition as the heir apparent to former party leader Bill Frist, who did not seek reelection. But Lott's rise to the role of minority whip raised eyebrows on both sides of the aisle. The Mississippi senator was ousted from Republican leadership in 2002 after speaking favorably of Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential campaign.
Some Republicans hailed Lott's re-ascension as a grand tale of political redemption. Others maligned it as a GOP failure to respond to an electorate clamoring for new leadership.
House Republicans avoided any such internal controversy with the selections of John Boehner as minority leader and Roy Blunt as minority whip. The Midwestern congressmen were predictable choices given House Speaker Denny Hastert's announcement that he would not seek the party's top spot after failing to properly police the sexual misconduct of former Florida Rep. Mark Foley.
The new GOP leadership in both houses faces an uphill climb to restore public confidence in the party before the 2008 presidential race. A sizable influx of "Blue Dog" Democrats, evidenced by the selection of Hoyer over Murtha, provides some hope for building bipartisan majorities around conservative solutions to problems like deficit spending and illegal immigration.
But such moderate voices are woefully underrepresented among Democrats' choices to chair critical committees-a fact that could roadblock the legislature for the next two years with rampant hearings and investigations into past Republican improprieties. The following is a brief look at some of the most powerful new committee leaders:
House committee chairmen
Armed Services: A social conservative who voted for the Iraq war, Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton has nonetheless vowed to investigate possible defense contract abuses and Bush administration mistakes. He has also called for significant troop redeployment out of Iraq.
Energy and Commerce: During his previous 15-year tenure as chairman, Michigan Rep. John Dingell orchestrated wide-ranging governmental investigations. The partisan bulldog will now take aim at oil subsidies and Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force meetings.
Financial Services: Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank has promised to address income inequality, handing shareholders more authority to limit executive salaries. He also intends to allocate more government subsidies for affordable housing.
Government Reform: Having once begged for congressional investigations into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and possible intelligence manipulation leading up to the Iraq war, California Rep. Henry Waxman now holds the power to proceed. The fierce liberal campaigner may also probe no-bid contracts in Iraq for any GOP misconduct.
Judiciary: The founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Michigan Rep. John Conyers is among the strongest advocates for presidential impeachment. The far-left Democrat also supports a bill that would ban governmental criticism of Islam.
Ways and Means: New York Rep. Charles Rangel claims he will not roll back the Bush tax cuts before they expire in 2010. He has further irked Democrats with calls to reinstate the military draft, though he intends it as an anti-war measure to ensure politicians' friends and family members are among the ranks.
Senate committee chairmen
Appropriations: As a two-time former chair of the committee, Robert Byrd earned a reputation as the king of pork-barrel spending. Now 89 years old, the West Virginia senator promises more of the same and a partial repeal of the Bush tax cuts to help pay for it.
Armed Services: A harsh critic of the Iraq War, Michigan's senior Sen. Carl Levin didn't take long after his committee appointment to demand the beginning of phased Iraq troop withdrawal within four to six months.
Finance: With a history of bucking his party, Montana Sen. Max Baucus has many liberals worried he may avoid legislation to limit increases in oil prices. But the fiscal moderate remains as committed as ever to blocking Social Security reform.
Foreign Relations: A possible presidential candidate in 2008, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden has shunned anti-war screeds in favor of generalities about the need to develop an exit strategy. His centrist positions, including a recent vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act, present a genuine opportunity for bipartisanship.
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: Democrat Joseph Lieberman, elected as an independent in Connecticut, has maddened party leaders with his unwavering support of the Iraq War. But he continues to side with Democrats on social issues.
Judiciary: Republicans accused Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy of holding up judicial appointments as chair of the committee in 2001. More recently, he voted against the Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito after berating the nominee during the hearings.
In a dramatic turnaround from the 2004 presidential election, many so-called values voters swung for Democrats in the recent midterms as the party of high ethical standards-at least higher than Republicans. Having encouraged that defection with promises of sweeping reform, Democrats now stand divided on just how far new rules should go.
Much of the party leadership supports measures to restrict the power and influence of lobbyists, such as a ban on giving gifts, meals, or travel to members of Congress and a requirement for full disclosure of all contacts with lawmakers. General support also exists for blocking lobbyists from entering the floor of either congressional chamber.
But considerable controversy exists over whether to place new restrictions on earmark spending or campaign financing and over how to police any such ethical upgrades. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a likely presidential candidate, has proposed establishing an independent ethics commission to enforce strict standards. Obama considers such action necessary to avoid alienating the voters who handed Democrats both houses of Congress.
California Sen. Diane Feinstein disagrees, arguing that "clear and precise" laws would suffice to clean up Capitol Hill. As the incoming chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, she may have the pull to block Obama's plan for new federal bureaucracy. A considerable number of Democratic lawmakers stand with Feinstein, many believing that Washington's recent ethical shortcomings stemmed simply from entrenched Republican control.
Democrats are similarly divided over how aggressively they should move to plug loopholes for 527 groups in the much-debated campaign-finance law known as McCain-Feingold. Far less discord surrounds new proposals to restrict earmark spending. Many House Democrats support blocking earmarks that would benefit an organization with a legislator's family member or former staff member among its employees. Senate Democrats are behind a measure requiring disclosure of any lawmaker responsible for earmarked funds paid directly to persons outside the federal government.