WASHINGTON - With the Republicans taking over Congress, President Bush ensconced in the White House, and war with Iraq dominating the public agenda, liberals would seem to be on the outs in Washington these days.
But Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois is undeterred. He has formed a group of "progressive" Senate Democrats that he hopes will help craft a bolder, more aggressive agenda than the one the party took to voters before last November's election.
"With the Republican monopoly on Congress and the White House, our voice is needed now more than ever," Durbin said in an interview last week. "We think there's power behind our ideas."
The group has only about a half-dozen members, including Sens. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin. Just how much influence it will wield is unclear at a time when most politicians seem to think the center of the political spectrum is the safest place to be.
"They're like contrarian stock investors. When everybody else goes one way, they go the other way in hopes of catching the next wave of good fortune," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
Democratic Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, the organizer of Senate Centrist Coalition, a bipartisan group of moderates, said the future of the Democratic Party lies in attracting independents, not firing up its loyal base of supporters.
"Neither base of either party is large enough to constitute a majority," Breaux said. "The fastest-growing segment of our population is independents. ... If they plan to appeal only to the base, they're on the wrong track."
In the aftermath of the November elections, when the Democrats lost control of the Senate and failed for the fourth consecutive election to regain the House, many Democrats said it was time for a new strategy.
As Durbin put it, "The president swamped us. He grabbed the microphone and the message, and we were left behind."
Durbin found that many of his colleagues shared his frustration about the party's muddled message.
"What we are trying to do is focus on an agenda and an approach that will help define the differences between the two parties," he said.
In one of its first forays, Durbin's new group - the Democratic Study Group - came up with the idea of giving a sort of "pre-rebuttal" to the president's State of the Union address, laying out Democratic priorities before Bush takes center stage Tuesday.
Durbin took the idea to the entire Senate Democratic caucus, and almost everybody agreed. It is a sign, he said, of how the new group might be able to shape the larger Democratic agenda.
The result was a news conference Thursday at which Durbin and five other senators accused the administration of being too focused on Iraq and not attending to the concerns of average Americans. They challenged the president in his State of the Union address to talk about the rising cost of health care, the sputtering economy and failing schools.
"The plan is to not just give the president an open stage but to create a scorecard for the press and the public," Durbin said.
Republicans are not impressed.
"It's more of the same," said Chad Colby, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "They're great at having press conferences, but we never see any proposals."
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