Watergate Babies, Now Fully Grown, Dominating Health Care Endgame

A new breed of congressional Democrat was swept into office in 1974, less than seven months after Richard Nixon's resignation. The Watergate Babies, as they were called, wasted no time in making their mark on the lower chamber, launching an uprising that revolutionized the way the House ran, depriving southern Democrats of the power they had wielded as chairmen of influential committees and empowering leadership and rank-and-file members instead.

Thirty-five years later, those babies have grown into chairmen themselves -- and are reuniting to hammer out the details of the grandest social-policy reform in half a century.

Five House and Senate committees were involved in drafting the legislation that has now passed each chamber. The Watergate Babies leading four of those panels will make up the core of the negotiating team charged with crafting the final legislation.

"One of the positive things about this is George Miller, Henry Waxman, Tom Harkin, Max Baucus and myself all arrived here the same day 35 years ago," said Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut. Dodd, one of the youngest of the babies, ran the Senate health committee deliberations for an ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). Harkin (Iowa) officially took over the spot when Kennedy passed away.

The reform bill is unlikely to enter into formal conference committee negotiations. Rather, informal conferencing will shape a compromise, which will then be voted on in the House, sent back to the Senate, and then on to the White House.

That process will go smoothly, the '74 classmates said, thanks to the long relationships they have with each other. "We're not getting a process here that involves a lot of unfamiliarity," Dodd said. Baucus (D-Mont.), the finance committee chairman, also said long histories will facilitate negotiations.

Rep. Miller of California chairs the Education and Labor Committee and Waxman of California helms Energy and Commerce. The only committee not overseen by a Watergate Baby is Ways and Means, where Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) holds the gavel. Rangel was elected in 1970.

The class of '74 represented a turning point for Democrats, with liberal, reform-minded representatives getting elected from the West and Northeast, which had previously been GOP strongholds. Voters were receptive to their message in the period of Nixon's resignation and his subsequent pardon by President Gerald Ford. Deteriorating economic conditions were also a major factor.

The Watergate class experienced 16 years in the wilderness when the GOP took over Congress in the wave of 1994 and held it (with the exception of 2001-2003 in the Senate) until the 2006 elections.

The uprising sparked by liberal freshmen members of the Democratic caucus in early 1975 foreshadowed another one 34 years later. Following the November 2008 elections, Waxman organized a coup that stripped Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) of his Energy and Commerce gavel. Dingell, the longest-serving member in House history, had replaced his father, a New Dealer, in 1955. Unseated, Dingell was given the honorary title of Chairman Emeritus and his name adorns the health care reform bill the House passed. Dingell has introduced single-payer legislation during every legislative session since the day he arrived.

Waxman, in seeking to oust Dingell, made health care reform a central issue, insisting that he was in a better position to push the bill through committee. The Health and Labor and Ways and Means committees, both stacked with liberal Democrats, had little difficulty passing strong reform packages. Energy and Commerce, with a bloc of Blue Dogs, proved more of a challenge and Waxman was forced to compromise on the strength of the public health insurance option, among other changes made, but he managed to move the bill through.

Dozens of issues remain unresolved. But, said Dodd, the more than three decades the men have spent together should ease the tension. "We all know each other very well," said Dodd.