WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders, ready to reclaim full control of Congress for the first time since President Reagan's landslide in 1980, Wednesday hailed their new 10-seat Senate majority as a death knell for the "Reagan revolution" and the beginning of a new era of realism at the Pentagon.
Both Reagan and the Democrats pledged to seek compromise in the aftermath of the divisive mid-term election, even though they appeared to be heading for a series of fractious confrontations on virtually every issue, ranging from Reagan's "Star Wars" nuclear defense system to his controversial judicial appointments.
Referendum on Policies
With a 55-45 majority in the Senate, Democrats are itching to reverse the policies that Reagan initiated six years ago after he and other Republicans were swept into office on a conservative tide. The President had invited such action by framing the election as a referendum on his arms control and economic agenda.
"I would hope that the President would read the message that was sent by the American people," Senate Democratic leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) declared. "And that message is: 'Look, your economic policies have not worked in so many instances.' "
At the White House, however, officials were understandably unwilling to interpret the election as a repudiation of Reagan's policies. In a somber postelection staff meeting, the President defiantly vowed to "complete the revolution that we have so well begun."
But, even before the Democrats' overwhelming victory, the President's policies were challenged frequently by the politically divided 99th Congress. And now, with the Democrats firmly in charge of both chambers, there is no doubt that Congress will undertake numerous efforts to frustrate the will of the President. In the House, Democrats are likely to increase their majority to 259, with Republicans holding 176 seats, after all the votes are counted, although four races were still in doubt Wednesday night. Democrats currently hold a 253-180 margin, with two vacancies.
In the new Congress, Democrats not only will have a sufficient majority to pass legislation such as the campaign reform and protectionist trade bills that were blocked previously by the GOP-dominated Senate, but the Senate committee chairmanships will pass to Democrats, who can be expected to use the congressional hearing process to focus public attention on controversial aspects of the Reagan regime--including Administration efforts to place more conservatives in the judiciary.
Among the Democrats who will inherit committee chairmanships are such well-known liberals as Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who has his choice between the Judiciary and the Labor and Human Resources committees; Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who gets Judiciary if Kennedy takes Labor and Human Resources, and Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, who will head Foreign Relations.
Yet, Democratic leaders indicated that they do not intend to challenge Reagan personally, nor are they planning any risky initiatives such as a tax increase to trim the federal deficit. The President is still too popular, and the Democrats are not interested in doing anything that might hurt their chances of recapturing the presidency in 1988.
Challenge to Byrd
In addition, their victory only heightened squabbling within the Democratic caucus. On Nov. 20, when Senate Democrats meet to select their leaders, Byrd will be challenged for the job of majority leader by Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, and many senators have complained privately that neither Byrd nor Johnston is polished enough to help the party's image.
Arms control and defense policies are likely to be the most hard-fought issues between Reagan and the 100th Congress. The chairmanship of the powerful Armed Services Committee will pass from retiring Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) to Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who--despite his reputation as a cautious moderate--recently has challenged the President's bargaining position in arms control talks with the Soviet Union.
On Wednesday, Nunn declared his intention to halt the production of weapons systems that he believes the United States cannot afford. He indicated that he would continue to emphasize the importance of conventional weaponry while placing less reliance than the President on "Star Wars," known officially as the Strategic Defense Initiative.
"We've got to put Humpty Dumpty back together, particularly in arms control and national security matters," he said. "My agenda would also include trying to get a consensus on SDI. It has been heavily politicized in this campaign by President Reagan."
Furious on Arms Control
Democrats backed away from a confrontation with Reagan on arms control before the Iceland summit meeting, and they are furious that the President in subsequent stump speeches accused them of trying to enact the Soviet bargaining position into law.