Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The Republican Congress closes shop this month as Democrats prepare to take over the business and the special interests try to figure out what the changeover means for their agendas.

With an army of liberal Democrats assuming power on Capitol Hill, you might think the legislative prospects of conservative-advocacy groups and business lobbies would be bleak next year. But that's not how many of them see it at all.

Politics can make strange bedfellows, and most of these groups say they have long worked both sides of the aisle and they are ready to deal.

Take the conservative Heritage Foundation, for instance. The prospect of the right-wing think tank, whose ideas fueled the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s, sitting down with liberal Democrats to talk tax cuts might sound far-fetched in the aftermath of a bitter midterm election. But Heritage officials say they are ready to find some "common ground" with their adversaries.

A senior Heritage official said last week that "we are actively soliciting a chance to sit down and discuss our ideas with them," and some Democrats tell me they are more than willing to listen.

Letters from Heritage seeking a meeting for a frank exchange of ideas were quietly sent out last week to House and Senate Democratic leaders, including incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, who will become the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

"Let me get back to you," a top Rangel aide said when I told him about Heritage's request. A half hour later, he told me: "(Rangel) thinks it's a great idea. He wants to hear different opinions because Congress functions best when you have more views expressed. Working for that middle ground is one of his priorities."

"We're the eternal optimists here," said Michael Franc, Heritage's vice president of government relations. "We believe there's a chance to move a free-market, smaller-government agenda forward in this environment. Many of the incoming (Democratic) members won their seats on the appeal that I would characterize as one of limited government.

"They talked of no tax increases on the middle class, they wanted a balanced budget and they embraced the pay-as-you-go idea that, if you focus on the spending side, can be a wonderful discipline," Franc continued.

"Conservatives should not approach this new arrangement with an immediate confrontational posture. Rather, we ought to say we have a way to solve these problems, here's what we believe in and give the Democrats an opportunity to accept or reject that other way," he said.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.