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Democrats Vow to Block GOP Conservatives


WASHINGTON — Republicans might wield control of Capitol Hill for the next two years, but they shouldn't expect liberal Democrats to simply stand by as they steamroller their conservative agenda through Congress, several prominent Democratic lawmakers warned Saturday.

"We're going to have to fight back," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who chaired a key health subcommittee at the forefront of efforts to tighten regulation of tobacco products. In January, the panel will be turned over to a new Republican chairman. One top contender, Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. of Virginia, has already promised to leave the tobacco industry alone.

At the same time, outnumbered Democrats acknowledged that confrontational tactics alone might prove counterproductive.

"Democrats have got to get beyond the politics of denial" they've engaged in since Election Day, said Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) "Over the next two years, it's going to be very important to turn this around. The challenge for Democrats will be to get beyond the defensive and offer a constructive alternative."

Stunned by the political body blow delivered by voters last Tuesday, beleaguered Democrats have spent much of the past week trying to get back on their feet, assess what went wrong and determine how they will respond when the new Congress convenes next year.

Interviews with several lawmakers on Saturday suggested that many feel strongly they should commit themselves to trying to derail any Republican effort to boost military spending or legislate tax cuts at the expense of social programs, particularly Medicare and Medicaid.

"I don't think we have a lot of choice in what our roles are going to be," Waxman said. "It reminds me of what (the late Israeli Prime Minister) Golda Meir said when asked why Israel fights wars: The alternative was to be pushed into the ocean."

Referring to the obstructionist warfare waged by the GOP against Democratic legislation in the past, Waxman added: "We're just going to have to play the same kind of role the Republicans played when they were in the minority."

As for the declaration by House Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) that he will cooperate, but not compromise, with Democrats, Waxman responded: "We feel the same way about him."

Several lawmakers noted that in the Senate, Democrats have the same procedural tools available to them that were used effectively in the past by the Republicans--particularly the filibuster.

Like their Democratic counterparts before them, next year's GOP senators may be unable to muster the three-fifths majority needed to cut off debate during a filibuster. Moreover, President Clinton still has the power of the veto, which Republicans cannot override with anything less than a two-thirds majority.

"I expect Newt Gingrich, a slash-and-burn guerrilla warrior, and (Texas GOP Sen.) Phil Gramm are going to try to confront President Clinton as often as possible, which will force him to veto legislation," Waxman said. "His vetoes will be sustained because the Republicans don't have a two-thirds vote. And the lines will be drawn more clearly for the next election."

Wyden said he has spent recent days listening to fellow Democrats rehash the election results with a sense of befuddlement, unable to comprehend the reasons behind the outcome. Their attitude is potentially self-destructive, he said.

"I've heard a lot of people say in the last few days: 'The economy's got some bright spots, there's no horrendous war where our citizens are being killed, so why are the voters so unhappy?' " Wyden said.

"I take the view that the voters are rightfully angry. The system doesn't work for a lot of families, especially the working class. It's the job of the Democrats to come up with fresh, creative policies to respond to that understandable voter anger about a system that doesn't work for a lot of people."

An aide to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), one of the few Democratic incumbents to easily win reelection, described the senator as disappointed by the Republican takeover, but far from disheartened.

"The Democrats still have some influence, and they plan to use it as best they can," said the aide, who requested anonymity. "No one is going to roll over and play dead on Capitol Hill."

Nevertheless, he said he doubted that Sarbanes would assume the role of an obstructionist.

"He is too fond of the institution and its rules," the aide said. "I think he'll use the legislative process in its best sense."

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