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The return of Democratic clout

Compromises on key bills in the Senate force GOP to face hard issues in an election year.

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In the gray-suited halls of the US Senate, few days have produced more high drama than the one this Wednesday - which yielded no fewer than five major pieces of legislation, 11th-hour wheeling and dealing, and sober messages to some powerful senators that it is no longer politics as usual in terms of party solidarity.

Wrapping up work for the year, the Senate passed two key defense bills - dropping a plan in one of them to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling - and a six-month extension of the USA Patriot Act. Senators also approved a $601.6 billion social spending bill, and identified nearly $40 billion in spending cuts.

But before the final curtain, Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans managed to ensure that some especially divisive issues, ranging from privacy rights to the fairness of the US tax code, come up early in 2006 - an election year. For Democrats, it's the high-water mark for minority clout since Republicans took control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Republicans worked very hard and gambled on being able to basically intimidate the Democrats on the Patriot Act and the ANWR provision in the Defense appropriations bill, and it didn't work," says Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The first decision point comes as the House takes up the Senate's changes to the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. In the first of several successful procedural challenges, Democrats forced the Senate to set aside three provisions in a $39.7 budget savings package on the grounds that they violated Senate rules.

That bill, including $6.4 billion in cuts in the growth of Medicare and $4.7 billion in Medicaid, now requires vulnerable Republican moderates to take another tough vote - and gives a small army of senior and health groups more time to lobby against it.

In a letter after the Senate vote, House Speaker Dennis Hastert asked Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to "put politics aside" and agree to accept the changes by unanimous consent on Thursday. But with all House Democrats voting against the bill, she is insisting on a recorded vote "in the light of day."

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