Believe it or not, lots of Republicans are downright chirpy these days. Yes, they lost the election. Big time. And they've lost their top committee assignments. And their big office suites. They're downsizing, to be sure, and that's not an easy or pleasant thing to do. On top of that, they've got a Republican president with an all-time-low approval rating of 30 percent. "And that's not good for any of us," says Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the newly elected chairman of the House GOP campaign committee.
So why the smiles? Because the now minority congressional Republicans are feeling liberated. The burden of trying to run a fractious Congress is gone. Now they get to become professional critics. No longer do they have to sweat to deliver a "majority of the majority" to the White House for every big vote-including Iraq. They can be the opposition voice, the backbenchers, the unruly minority. After all, they earned it.
But there's a peril in their new circumstance. The temptation is to behave badly, to prove the Democrats can't get anything done and don't deserve their new majority status. They can complain, as they did this past week, that they're being unfairly shut out of the legislative process. They can become obstructionist if they want; there's plenty of precedent for that. But to simply oppose would be a huge mistake: The public asked for reform and change. To get in the way of that would only be self-destructive.
A losing hand. Yet last week, the Republicans spent much of their time wallowing in a burst of newfound self-righteousness, whining about the Democrats' fast-track legislative strategy-passing ethics reform, then quickly moving on to popular issues like an increase in the minimum wage and federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The Democrats went straight to the floor, bypassing the usual legislative committees and refusing to allow any amendments. After all, they argued, these measures have been fully vetted, debated, and redebated. Republicans, however, pretend to be shocked, shocked at this betrayal of House rules. Spare us the outrage. Have they forgotten that time in 2003 that the very partisan Tom DeLay and company prolonged a roll call vote for three hours to allow Republicans to round up enough members to pass the prescription drug benefit? Where were the House rules then?
In the end, though, this isn't about the rules. It's about what the public wants. "The American people didn't ask us to wait," the new chairman of the House Democratic caucus, Illinois's Rahm Emanuel, told me. "There's been an election. We ran on an agenda, and we're giving people an opportunity to vote on those bills." And while no one would accuse Emanuel of being anything but a partisan-he was the maestro of the party's House victory in November-his point is accurate. The GOP's whining leaders need to get a grip and then get on with it. "I have three children," Emanuel says, "and I know a tantrum when I see it." In fact, the Republican leaders' righteousness didn't even go over well with some of their own rank-and-file members. "When I saw our leadership whining about the process, I just about threw up," says Rep. Jeff Flake, a conservative Arizona Republican. "We sound like a bunch of babies."
Here's the point: Republicans can engage in a charade complaining about the process all they want. But when they ran the place, they failed on the policy. Consider ethics reform, passed in the House last week. Some Republicans wasted time grumbling that certain reforms didn't go far enough; that the plan to disclose pet spending projects-aka earmarks-should have included a system to simply cut these projects in half. Maybe so. But if it's so weak, why didn't they make the changes when they ran the place? In the end, they voted with the Democrats to pass the most far-reaching ethics reform in House history-including a ban on gifts from lobbyists and free travel on corporate jts. Republicans supported it, because it was the right thing to do, and, besides, they decided not to be suicidal. All of which is a good sign. As Flake says, Republicans should know they had their chance to reform, in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff influence-buying scandal, and blew it. "We should admit we didn't handle ourselves very well when we were in charge."
A new CBS News poll finds the American people, at least, have hope that things will change. Sixty-eight percent say they're optimistic about the new Congress. If they are disappointed, beware.
By Gloria Borger