When Ted Kennedy's booming voice said "the work begins anew" at Barack Obama's national convention in Denver a few years ago, he was talking about getting Congress to pass national health care. He could also have been talking about today, because today the work begins anew to save national health care. And health care is only one of a host of issues under assault as the Republicans take control of the House.
"Obviously things have changed," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA). It was a bitter cold day and he was hurrying from his office to the Capitol building across the street to take a procedural vote. "I think it's going to be a tough year, and we’ll be playing a lot more defense than offense."
The tension was already palpable back in December, in the last days of the lame duck session, when WBUR was in Washington to speak with members of the Massachusetts all-Democratic congressional delegation about their new life in the minority, as they go from being one of the most powerful delegations in the country to being out of power.
"I am not an expert on the internal workings of the cerebral mechanisms of a Tea Party member of Congress," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), dean of the delegation, when we visited him in his office. "I await with great interest in meeting all of them as they arrive. But from a distance, I would say that it will not be easy to integrate all of those several dozen Tea Party members into what is supposed to be a governing party."
Markey hopes that is the case — that GOP leadership will have a hard time reigning in the new headstrong Tea Party members in the House. Even so, the coming months will not be easy on Markey, as he and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) lose their powerful committee chairmanships.
Political analyst Norm Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, said Washington is a different place from when Markey and the Democrats were last in the minority.
"Now it may be a little tougher for Markey, simply because when he was in the minority, the Energy and Commerce Committee at least still tried to find some areas of bipartisan cooperation," Ornstein said. "I’m a little more skeptical now in a House that’s become so polarized."
Markey visibly stiffened when we asked about his Special Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which the Republicans have already announced is "unnecessary" and will be eliminated.
"A surprisingly high percentage of Republican primary voters do not believe in evolution, well over 50 percent," Markey said. "So it’s no surprise to me that there are many who don’t believe in the science of global warming. When people ask me if I believe in global warming, I say, 'Well, I believe in physics.' So, yes, it will be a challenge. Science is going to come under assault."
Another assault is coming in the House Financial Services Committee, where Frank is giving up his leadership to Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), who has suggested he'll try to dismantle the major Wall Street reform package Frank guided through Congress in 2010. But Frank bristles at the idea that his constituents should be concerned with whether this will be hard on him.
"Well, in one sense it’s not hard at all, it doesn’t require any effort from me," he quipped. "I just walk in one day and they’ve won. Sympathizing with me because I used to be the chairman and now I’m not the chairman and I don’t get to play with the gavel, I don’t think they care and they shouldn’t care."
What Frank does care about is public policy. But he said he is confident Bachus and the Republicans will not succeed in undoing his work.
"The financial reform bill is the single most popular thing the Democrats did," he said. "They may try to undo health care and in a couple other areas they may try to undo things, but I think they understand that tougher regulation on financial shenanigans, consumer protection, banning the bad mortgages — those are all too popular for them to take on."
“There is a new mandate for these returning minority members who participated in making all of those things happen, and that’s keeping them from being dismantled."Norm Ornstein, political analyst
When Capuano was first elected in 1998, the Republicans were in control. While he makes no secret of the fact that he did not enjoy life in the minority, the experience has clearly brought him some perspective for this time around.
"It’s like any relationship; I mean this whole place is a multitude of relationships," he said. "And so therefore you have to figure out, it’s a new relationship now. What’s our relationship amongst each other? Do we stick together as a party, do we fall apart as a party, what direction does the Democratic Party go? What happens in the Senate? And what does the president do? I mean, we’re trying to figure out, does the president stand up for his values or does he compromise more, and we don’t know yet."
For the people back home in Massachusetts, the more important question may be whether a loss of influence on Capitol Hill will translate to a loss of funding to the state.
"Um, no," Frank said. "Because when it comes to advocacy for your own district, I think it’s not a big partisan issue."
Capuano, McGovern and Markey all agree with Frank on this point. The danger is not in Massachusetts losing its slice of the pie. Rather, with federal spending cuts coming, it's whether the whole pie gets smaller.
"Let’s put it this way," Frank went on. "Yes, the district that I represent, for instance — southeastern Massachusetts in particular, Fall River, New Bedford — communities that have not been treated well historically by the central authorities, they’ll be worse off because the Republicans took control of the House, because they are not for the pieces of legislation that help them."
Knowing this, Frank said, his biggest challenge is what he calls "a connect-the-dots game."
"There are going to be shortfalls in services, there are going to be deteriorations in the quality of life that result from actions the Republicans take," he said. "And it will be one, to try and stop those from happening and two, to demonstrate that."
It sure sounds like doom and gloom for the Democrats, but Ornstein points out that if there's one delegation that knows how to play the game of getting things done while in the minority, it's Massachusetts.
"One thing we have to say about these Democrats now, moving from the lush plains of the majority into the harsh desert of the minority, is they’ve been there before," he said. "And what we saw before is that they managed to function pretty well."
Beyond that, Orstein said, they're motivated.
"The 111th Congress had a remarkable set of accomplishments, was among the most productive Congresses ever," Ornstein said. "There is a new mandate for these returning minority members who participated in making all of those things happen, and that’s keeping them from being dismantled. It’s preserving your legacy.
"And that — especially given that you’ve got an interesting place to look at now with a majority party that has a lot of cracks in its own foundation, a leadership that has to deal with a third of its members who are new and who don’t come in with a deep abiding trust in leadership — you can play one side off against the other, and that means the formidable talents of people like Barney Frank, Ed Markey, will come into play and it will make being in the minority not a pleasant experience, but less painful."
Earlier Coverage From Washington:
This program aired on January 5, 2011.