Laying Down a Marker

Nancy Pelosi has taken over in a more polarized environment than Newt Gingrich faced in 1994.

The year was 1994. Republicans won control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years. They promised a revolution. The day after the election, Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich said, "Last night was one of the most decisive off-year elections in American history."

Fast-forward to 2006. Democrats regained control of Congress after 12 years. They promised reform. Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi said in December, "You cannot advance the people's agenda unless you drain the swamp that is Washington, D.C."

In 1994, by 50 percent to 26 percent, the public thought that the new Republican Congress would be good for the country, according to a Gallup poll for USA Today and CNN. And now? By 61 percent to 32 percent, people say that Democratic control of Congress will be good for the country, according to a poll by Opinion Research for CNN. The public is more optimistic than it was 12 years ago—and more divided.

The big shift is among women. It's the Pelosi factor. Nearly two-thirds of women say that Democratic control of Congress will be good for the country. In 1994, fewer than half of women felt optimistic about Gingrich and the Republicans taking over.

Remember how excited Republicans were to win control of Congress in 1994? "If this is not a mandate ... I'd like someone to explain to me what a mandate would look like," Gingrich said. In 1994, 81 percent of Republicans thought that the GOP Congress would be good for the country. Well, guess what? Democrats are even more excited now: 91 percent of them believe that a Democratic Congress will be good for the country.

But in 1994, fewer than half of Democrats thought that the Republican Congress would be bad for the country. But now, nearly three-quarters of Republicans believe that a Democratic Congress will be bad for the country. Pelosi has taken over in a more polarized environment than Gingrich faced.

A lot of items are on the House Democrats' agenda for the first 100 legislative hours. Speaker Pelosi ticked off some of them: "Passing the 9/11 commission recommendations ... raising the minimum wage ... making college more affordable ... advancing stem-cell research."

What about the Bush administration's two signature policies—tax cuts and the war in Iraq?

President Bush is daring Democrats to challenge his tax cuts. "These policies allowed us to meet our goal of cutting the budget deficit in half three years ahead of schedule," Bush said on January 3. "We did so without taxing working people. We kept taxes low."

Democrats show no inclination to reverse the tax cuts. They are considering changes around the edges, such as raising taxes on the very wealthy and on oil companies. But even those proposals are not wildly popular. The public is split over rolling back tax breaks for oil companies, according to the CNN poll.

House Democrats are dealing with taxes obliquely, by proposing a "pay-as-you-go" rule: New spending must be offset by cutting spending on other programs or by raising taxes. The public is not too crazy about that, either. Most people say they oppose "changing the rules to allow Congress to create new spending programs only if taxes are raised or spending on other programs is cut." Message to Democrats: Be careful about taxing and spending.

Iraq was the issue that brought Democrats to power. The problem is, there's not a lot that Congress can do about an ongoing military policy. "No one is going to cut off funding to the troops that I know of," says Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But Democrats can ensure that the cost of the war is evident. They insist they will no longer treat military spending in Iraq as emergency spending, outside the regular budget.

Senate Democratic committee chairmen will also hold hearings on how the United States got involved in Iraq, what went wrong, and what to do next. In the coming weeks, what happens in the committee rooms could be more important than what happens on the House floor.

Even before the president addressed the nation this week, Democratic leaders laid down their marker on Iraq. "The Congress of the United States has oversight responsibility, and it has appropriating and funding responsibility," Pelosi said. "The president knows that he does not have a blank check from Congress."