Blue Skies?

Increased Power Carries Increased Burdens

by Sam Kornell

A week after Democrats swept both houses of Congress, Santa Barbara Representative Lois Capps expressed cautious delight at the dramatic reversal of fortune for her party. “You’ve seen the jubilation,” she said, “but at the same time, we know full well that this is a huge burden that’s been placed on us.” Pointing to Iraq, immigration, healthcare, and social security, Capps warned that in the next two years Democrats will face difficult, lasting problems unlikely to invite politically popular remedies. “We’re going to have to work through a complex series of hearings and arrive at compromises with as little partisan overlay as possible,” she said.

Capps conceded that her call for bipartisan cooperation is unlikely to resonate with many of her constituents, for whom the last six years of Republican leadership have represented a remarkably partisan period in American politics. But she argued that working with her colleagues across the aisle to forge negotiated legislation is not only in the best interest of the American public, but will prove politically expedient for the Democratic Party. “We’re a closely divided country,” Capps said. “If we railroad through our own agenda, we risk alienating half of the country, and we risk having exactly what just happened to the Republicans happen to us two years from now.”

Asked whether Congressional Republicans — not to mention President Bush — were ready to meet in the middle, Capps was circumspect. “That remains to be seen,” she said. “It’s part of the dance.” Capps, who on Sunday embarked on a nine-day trip to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Macedonia as a member of a democracy assistance commission, said she would be prepared to talk about specific policy issues as soon as the new Congress goes into session in January.

Capps’s delight at moving out of the minority party also extended to her status as a California Democrat. Of the many states that stood to experience shifts in political influence as a result of the elections, she pointed out that California had been near the top of the list. Long marginalized in state battles for federal funding, California is generally considered irrelevant to presidential contests (it has voted Democratic for decades) and tends to invite scorn from Republican politicians who view it as a bastion of the liberal fringe. In the last election cycle, conservative political strategists argued that California, as the seat of the corrupting and corrosive politics of liberal Hollywood and the even more liberal San Francisco, did not represent the general values of the American public and did not deserve special attention and assistance from the federal government.

But with Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House and a likely gain in influence and stature for Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, California Democrats’ agenda is poised to go much farther than it did under Republican leadership. Buttressing their leadership gains will be the size of the House delegation: Comprising 34 Democrats, it will represent 15 percent of the Democratic membership as a whole, as compared to 20 Republicans representing 10 percent of Republican membership. The net effect of these developments, Capps said, will be to pave the way for California to get access to federal dollars earmarked for repairs in the state’s levee system, savings on the Medicare drug program, and more sway on such issues as immigration and the environment.

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