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Controlling Themselves

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Need proof that Democrats are intent on holding their House and Senate majorities in next year's elections? Then look no further than the refusal of Hill Democratic leaders to respond to the Virginia Tech massacre by calling for sweeping gun control legislation and to respond to the Supreme Court's decision upholding the federal ban on "partial-birth" abortions by calling for the repeal of that law.

In the not-so-distant past, the Democratic Party would have jumped on both issues with hobnailed boots. This time, top Democrats have been very cautious, giving their adversaries little room for attack.

Although portions of the Democratic base consider such caution on hot-button social issues despicable and nothing short of appeasement, most Democrats in Congress seem to realize that their majorities depend on holding seats in districts where the majority of voters are at odds with Democratic doctrine on abortion rights and guns -- not to mention on impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

Many Democratic lawmakers from the Sun Belt, rural areas, small towns, and certain parts of Indiana and Pennsylvania breathed a sigh of relief when their party did not react last week the way it might have a dozen years ago.

Simply put, Democrats got a taste of winning last year. And that is driving many of them to behave in ways that run counter to every impulse in their bodies.

As of next week, Democrats will have controlled Capitol Hill for four months, one-sixth of the 110th Congress's life span. During that time, little has gone right for President Bush and his Republican Party other than getting Robert Gates and Lt. Gen. David Petraeus to take on the thankless jobs of Defense secretary and military commander in Iraq, respectively.

In fact, the White House and the GOP were on an almost nonstop losing streak long before last November's election: They were rocked by the Jack Abramoff, Randy (Duke) Cunningham, and Mark Foley scandals; and the situation in Iraq, which had gradually been deteriorating, seemed to get much worse in September.

Since the election, Bush and his party have been damaged by the scandals involving Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the firing of U.S. attorneys. And just last week, the homes or offices of the wives of two sitting Republican members of Congress were raided by FBI agents on consecutive days -- certainly a first in the history of Congress.

Meanwhile, stories that could have hurt Democrats -- such as those about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's insistence on access to a long-range jet and her trip to Syria -- have come and gone without inflicting much damage. Democrats even survived Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's declaration that the war in Iraq is "lost."

Indeed, the biggest problem encountered by Democrats this year was caused by their passage of a nonbinding resolution calling on Bush to bring the troops home from Iraq. Congress's approval rating took a hit: Apparently voters didn't like the nonbinding part.

Democratic leaders have been forced to run to stay ahead of public opinion on the war. When they took over in January, they probably never dreamed that by April they would be pushing hard-and-fast deadlines for getting all combat troops out of Iraq next year.

These days, Democratic lawmakers are sounding remarkably -- and uncharacteristically -- united. Even though many House committee chairs are chafing at Pelosi's highly centralized command-and-control system, House Democrats are singing largely from the same hymnbook and more or less in the same key.

Freelancing is frowned upon, and many issues have been declared off-limits. Others are being approached carefully and with an enormous level of coordination with, and within, the leadership. And although Pelosi and her key lieutenants -- Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip James Clyburn, and Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel -- may not be the closest of friends, they are working together as a team better than just about anyone would have predicted. Far from being dysfunctional, they are well organized.

In short, Hill Democrats really aren't behaving like Democrats; they're behaving like a party that wants to stay in power.

 
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