George W. Bush’s hopes of launching his second term with a new Secretary of State in place and a new Attorney General very nearly so were dashed when the two senior Democrats in the Senate decided not to go along. Senator Robert Byrd, the dean of the chamber, pulled the brakes on the Condoleezza Rice confirmation because, he said, the Senate ought to take seriously its constitutional responsibility to review the nomination of a new Secretary of State, particularly in light of Rice’s role in promoting the invasion of Iraq. At the same time, Senator Edward Kennedy, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, arranged for the delay of a planned vote on the nomination of Alberto Gonzales, who was responsible for a memo that provided an Administration green light for torture.

These actions–coming as they did after Barbara Boxer’s lone stand in the Senate against accepting Ohio’s electors because of allegations of widespread irregularities, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee votes by Boxer and John Kerry against Rice–outraged the Republicans. Senator Jon Kyl called them “churlish,” while Senator John Warner grumbled that Democrats would not win “any merit badges.”

So be it. Democrats aren’t supposed to be collecting merit badges. They’re supposed to be representing the tens of millions of Americans who object to this Administration’s policies–including the President’s determination to promote officials associated with some of the worst misdeeds of his first term.

Ultimately, the delaying of the Rice and Gonzales confirmations represents only a minor revolt. The full GOP-dominated Senate approved Rice on January 26 and was poised to do the same for Gonzales, after a10-to-8 party-line vote in the Judiciary Committee. But we hope the delays are a sign of more important revolts to come. Opposition that is both aggressive and substantive will be essential in preventing the packing of courts with foes of abortion rights, the filling of regulatory positions such as the chairmanship of the FCC with acolytes of the industries they’re supposed to constrain, the destruction of Social Security and Medicare, and further military disasters.

Some Democrats understand the job of an opposition party. Among them are the new Democratic Senate whip, Illinoian Dick Durbin, profiled here by John Nichols, and Congressman Henry Waxman of California, profiled here by David Corn, both of whom recognize that the rules by which Congress, particularly the Senate, governs itself were designed to allow an opposition party with substantial popular support to delay and even defeat the will of a President and his party. They’re also fighters who don’t let caution prevail over principle, and who do their homework. Durbin voted against the Iraq War during his first (and successful) re-election campaign, a vote he calls “the most important vote that I ever cast in twenty-two years of service on Capitol Hill.” Waxman found ways in the first Bush term, despite being in the minority, to investigate Administration outrages ranging from overcharges in Halliburton contracts in Iraq to the peddling of false sex-education information to teens–actions that led fellow Congressman George Miller to describe him as having developed the model for what others should do: “Ask questions, be persistent and not accept silence.”

The point, as Durbin and Waxman know, is not to obstruct but to oppose; the American people will recognize the difference. If Democrats get the hang of their opposition role, George Bush’s Inaugural Day disappointments will be only the beginning of a frustrating second term.