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Democrats Eye Agenda for ’06 Message

Seeing an opening to reach voters while Republicans are beset by turmoil, House Democrats are privately planning to accelerate the timing of the release of their platform and the major policies they will promote on the campaign trail next year.

Key Democratic sources say Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other House leaders are putting the finishing touches on what arguably will be Democrats most detailed “positive” election-year agenda since the party lost power more than a decade ago. Pelosi has been coordinating with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), key Democratic strategists, advisers and outside interest groups on the policy platform as well as the party’s broader 2006 message.

The move comes as many in the party have argued that Democrats need to do more than just complain of Republican excesses and the “culture of corruption” they charge the GOP with fostering.

An early draft of the agenda outlines the specific initiatives House Democrats will pledge to enact if given control of the House. Leaders have been working on the document for months, and have already started encouraging Members to unify around it and stick to its themes.

Among the proposals are: “real security” for America through stronger investments in U.S. armed forces and benchmarks for determining when to bring troops home from Iraq; affordable health insurance for all Americans; energy independence in 10 years; an economic package that includes an increase in the minimum wage and budget restrictions to end deficit spending; and universal college education through scholarships and grants as well as funding for the No Child Left Behind act.

Democrats will also promise to return ethical standards to Washington through bipartisan ethics oversight and tighter lobbying restrictions, increase assistance to Katrina disaster victims through Medicaid and housing vouchers, save Social Security from privatization and tighten pension laws.

One Democratic leadership aide said Democrats want to roll out their agenda this fall rather than early next year as leaders originally had planned. This aide suggested that the latest string of events — from the Republican response to Hurricane Katrina, growing concern about the war in Iraq and mounting questions about GOP ethics — made it clear Democrats must move quickly.

“Given the climate it makes sense to push it out sooner rather than later,” this staffer said.

Sources acknowledged that while Democratic leaders plan to formally unveil the agenda in the coming weeks, they already have been publicly hinting at what’s to come.

“If we’re laying the groundwork, then people can understand it,” said a senior Democratic aide. “If we’ve been talking about this, it will be clear what Democrats stand for and why voters should elect our candidates next year.”

“The seeds are there,” said another high-level staffer.

Last week, for instance, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) offered a preview of the agenda on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” outlining five “quick ideas” Democrats would run on.

Emanuel then defended the ideas by saying, “the policies that Republicans have offered have gotten us in the ditch we have today.”

The effort comes after several cycles of Democrats facing criticism for failing to articulate a message and agenda that differentiates the party from the majority. Republicans have taken to calling the Democrats the “party of no” for simply objecting to GOP proposals without offering any legitimate alternatives.

Democrats have struggled internally with their message as well and faced major hurdles trying to overcome the Republican communications machine powered by the White House and GOP leaders in both chambers.

A Democratic strategist said given the party’s history, it remains to be seen whether they can find a winning message and sell it to voters. This source pointed to Pelosi’s long-crafted 2004 message document, called the “New Partnership for America’s Future,” that never took hold.

“Just because you say something in Washington doesn’t mean that it will go anywhere,” the strategist said. “The jury is still out on whether a large group of Members will buy into it and actually speak to it and whether it is used race by race, and district by district in America.”

But Democratic leaders are confident this election will be different, and say 2006 presents the perfect opportunity for the party to break through, given that the presidency is not at stake and the focus will be on House and Senate contests. Pelosi last week highlighted many of the forthcoming agenda items that Democrats will be talking about, including health insurance for all Americans and energy independence.

“I am excited about where we are going,” Pelosi said. “I think that our message will be one that is about the future. It will be about big ideas and it will be one that will carry us to victory.”

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) separately said the “Democratic Party will want to and needs to present a positive agenda to the American public next year.” Hoyer recently unveiled a document outlining his vision on national security touching on what Democrats, if elected next year, would do to make the country safer.

“There is only one way to get change in America next year, and that is to elect a Democratic Congress as opposed to business as usual,” Hoyer said, later adding: “But we need to give them a positive alternative and we will.”

Pelosi and other leading Democrats believe they have learned some lessons in working together to defeat President Bush’s effort to reform Social Security. That, sources say, proved to Democrats that they can work together, articulate a message and connect with voters despite the bully pulpit advantage enjoyed by the White House.

“I’m proud of that,” Pelosi said. “That gave Members a great deal of confidence about our plan and how we go forward.”

“The public really sees us more unified than ever,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a leader of the liberal Progressive Caucus.

Members on both the left and right of the Caucus seem receptive to a detailed party outline to present to the public and hope party leaders can put something together this election year that will improve their electoral prospects.

But Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a leading centrist New Democrat, said no matter what detailed policies Democrats offer up this cycle, they must also make the broader case for why Republicans should no longer be in charge. He said all of the specific proposals will easily fit into that theme that Republicans “are out of touch.”

“Democrats fell short in ’02 and ’04 because we didn’t make a compelling case of how Republican policies have allowed American families to lose ground,” he said. “We have to make that case.”

Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a conservative Democrat and fiscal hawk, said that as part of that pitch, the party must also do a better job showing that a one-party government is dangerous because it provides no accountability. That is particularly the case, he said, when it comes to Republican spending policies that have left the country deep in the red.

Tanner, a Blue Dog, said Democratic leaders will be put to the test this cycle, adding that they can do nothing less than coordinate and articulate the party message, and deliver wins.

“If they can’t under these circumstances, they need to replace the Democratic leadership, across the board,” he said. “I say that from the standpoint that the country needs desperately a viable alternative to what’s going on here.”

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