LOPSIDED as the presidential election may appear on the eve of the Clinton-Dole debates, the races for control of the next Congress are breathtakingly close and steeped in imponderables.
Whichever party wins the Senate and the House, its margin is likely to be razor-thin even if President Clinton is re-elected in a landslide. Our shaky guess at this stage is that the Republicans will hold the House, but only by about 10 seats compared to 34 at present, and will be lucky to keep even a majority of one (down from three) in the Senate.
Such a result -- a Democrat in the White House and a Republican majority on Capitol Hill -- may seem like a continuation of the status quo. But with a difference. Chastened Republican legislators will have learned they can't do anything without accommodating their political opponents. And President Clinton will have discovered that divided government is not necessarily deadlocked government.
Indeed a case can be made, based on the record of the 104th Congress in its latter days, that a Democratic president turned centrist can work pretty well with a Republican-led Congress in retreat from the far right. In the traditional adjournment phone call to Mr. Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said all of his colleagues could be "proud of their accomplishments." To which the president replied: "You guys did such a great job."
Would Mr. Clinton be happier with a Congress narrowly held by the Republicans. He will never admit it. But that might be better for him than dealing with the doctrinaire liberals who are in line for key committee chairmanships if the Democrats recapture control.
As for Mr. Dole, should he be the upset winner, his best bet for an effective agenda would require a closely divided Congress. Why so? Because a big Republican majority would mean the return to Capitol Hill of Gingrich-style ideologues who have never trusted the pragmatic compromiser who is their standard-bearer. And a big Democratic majority without the restraining influence of a Clinton White House would be hell-bent on confrontation with a President Dole.
On election night, Nov. 5, early interest will undoubtedly focus on the presidential contest. But if its result can be seen quickly, attention will lock on the fight for Capitol Hill. At that point, citizens should be content if returns are so close they will collapse into bed without knowing which party controls Congress.
Pub Date: 10/05/96