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Democrats Plan Strategy for 108th Congress - 2002-12-21

When the new 108th Congress convenes in January, Republicans will remain in control of the House of Representatives. But Democrats are already planning their strategies for the new legislative session with an eye toward the next congressional, and presidential election, in 2004.

On January 7, Democratic party lawmakers in the House begin their new session facing a range of challenges, many of them stemming from significant Democratic setbacks in the November mid-term election.

Democratic hopes for regaining control of the House were dashed in the election, and the party will remain in the minority in the House for the eighth year since 1994.

However, there is a new captain of the Democrats ship in the House of Representatives. California congresswoman Nancy Pelosi has vowed to sharpen the party's message on key issues, such as the economy and health care.

"We have a mighty task ahead of us," she said. "I never under-estimate an opponent. But let's not over-estimate the challenge as well. We can win this in 2004. With your help, in formulating a policy of economic growth for our country. With your help, in investing in education and investments that will bring a return to our economy, we will be successful, but we have to formulate that policy across the board."

The job facing Mrs. Pelosi is enormous. Political analysts say if Democrats are to have any hope of regaining control of Congress in 2004, or challenging President Bush for the White House, they need to rebuild the party image, and find new ways of delivering messages on traditionally-Democratic issues.

"We Democrats have to subdue some of the thoughts that we have in order to have a message," said long-serving New York Congressman Charles Rangel. "Our problem is we didn't have a message. And we have to get together and get it."

In 2003, a key voice in the drive for political recovery is likely to be the former House Democratic leader Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt.

Mr. Gephardt is expected to announce a new campaign for the presidency. In doing so, he will run on a "populist" platform attacking what he calls irresponsible Republican fiscal policies.

In comments before the November election, Mr. Gephardt gave this assessment of a Republican-controlled Congress, and said Democrats would have to respond.

"If Republicans win control of the Congress, they will enact the special interest agenda, not the people's agenda," he said. "Democrats are going to articulate our vision for America's future, and continue to fight for sensible, responsible policies that will get this economy moving again for hard-working families all across America."

Democrats have been busy charting out a "game plan" for the new session, with the weak U.S. economy at the top of the agenda.

In early December, key House Democrats huddled with Mrs. Pelosi in strategy meetings expected to form the basis of a display of resolve when Congress returns in January.

However, the Democrats' effort to build momentum early in 2003 and maintain it, may be frustrated by internal party rivalries.

Mrs. Pelosi faces unrest from some moderate and conservative Democrats who feel their views are not being heard. Texas Congressman Martin Frost challenged Mrs. Pelosi for the position of House Democratic leader.

"Her politics are to the left, and I think that the [Democratic] party, to be successful, must speak to the broad center of the country," he said.

In the early months of 2003 another, possibly more significant, factor working against Democratic recovery may be possible military action against Iraq.

Analysts say this may eclipse attempts by Democratic lawmakers or declared or prospective presidential candidates to begin scoring political points against Republicans and a popular war-time president.

Part of VOA's Yearend Series