GOP has narrow margin in Congress Republicans post net gain in Senate; House is uncertain; Most incumbents win; Some freshman Republicans face stiff challenges; ELECTION 1996


WASHINGTON -- Republicans apparently retained control of Congress last night, claiming consecutive majorities in both houses for the first time since 1930 despite the sweeping victory by President Clinton.

Like Clinton, the Republican lawmakers benefited from a seeming satisfaction with incumbents that marked a striking departure from the anti-Washington fervor that brought them to power two years ago for the first time in 40 years.

But their majorities in both the House and Senate will again to be too small for the congressional Republicans to accomplish much without cooperating with Clinton and the Democrats.

"Our emphasis is going to be on doing what needs to be done for this country," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. "We want to put the bitterness of the campaign behind us and work together for the future. I think people voted in a way that indicates they want us to work together."

The Senate remained in Republican hands with an apparent net gain of two seats, which would give them a 55-to-45 majority. The race for an open Republican seat in Oregon, which was too close to call, would reduce the Republican margin if the Democratic candidate won.

Sen. Larry Pressler, a South Dakota Republican and a three-term veteran, was the only Senate incumbent to lose last night, falling to Democratic Rep. Tim Johnson.

Democrats also held onto closely contested seats in New Jersey, Michigan, Massachusetts, Georgia, Louisiana and Illinois.

But Republicans seized open Democratic seats in Alabama, Nebraska and Arkansas.

The margin in the House was likely to remain uncertain until results were available from California and Washington, where many freshman Republicans were under siege. But several tight House races appeared to be breaking in favor of the incumbents, a majority of whom are Republicans.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the chief target of the Democratic opposition and the driving force behind the ambitious first-year agenda of the Republican-led Congress to scale back the government, coasted to re-election in his Georgia district.

"It looks like we will almost certainly keep control of the U.S. House," Gingrich told a cheering crowd in suburban Atlanta. Each party had about equal gains and losses, which amount to simply "swapping seats," he said.

Partial returns indicated that only a handful of the 71 House Republican freshmen seeking re-election -- the budget-cutting foot soldiers in Gingrich's self-described revolution -- would not see a second term.

At least six were apparently defeated last night, including Rep. Michael Patrick Flanagan of Chicago. Flanagan was the Republican political novice who in 1994 defeated Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the once-powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who was then under indictment on corruption charges.

Another Republican freshman, Daniel Frisa of New York, was defeated by Carolyn McCarthy, a political novice. McCarthy, whose husband was slain in the 1993 massacre aboard a Long Island Rail Road train, decided to oppose Frisa because of his vote to repeal the ban on assault weapons.

In another House contest, three-term Rep. Gary A. Franks, one of two black Republicans in Congress, lost to his Democratic challenger, James Maloney.

The Senate Republicans were able to preserve their majority by seizing Democratic seats in Alabama, where the state attorney general, Jeff Sessions, defeated state Sen. Roger Bedford to claim the seat given up by a Democrat, Howell Heflin, and in Nebraska, where a Republican investment banker, Chuck Hagel, won the seat vacated by the Democratic incumbent, Jim Exon.

In Clinton's home state of Arkansas, Rep. Tim Hutchinson defeated Attorney General Winston Bryant to become the first popularly elected Republican senator in the state's history.

In Virginia, Republican John W. Warner fended off Democrat Mark Warner, another wealthy businessman who used his money to put up a tough fight.

But Democrats prevailed in some tight races. Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, overcame a stiff challenge from that state's popular governor, William F. Weld. And Minnesota's Paul Wellstone, a first-term liberal who was the only Democratic senator up for re-election to vote against the welfare reform bill that passed, also beat back a re-match bid from former Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz.

One notable victory for the Democrats was in Georgia, where Max Cleland, a triple amputee wounded in the Vietnam War and former head of what was then the Veterans Administration, defeated a Republican businessman, Guy Millner.

Although the seat had been relinquished by another Democrat -- four-term veteran Sam Nunn -- Millner waged a fierce race, pouring in plenty of his own money. Republicans had thought they had a reasonable chance to win it.

"Woo Hoo!" was the reaction faxed out by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

But Bob Dole may have helped save his own Senate seat for the party. Sam Brownback, a House Republican freshman, defeated Jill Docking, a moderate Democrat who had charged that Brownback was too conservative.

Robert G. Torricelli, a seven-term Democratic congressman won what was described as the nastiest contest in the nation, defeating Rep. Dick Zimmer, for the Senate seat now held by Democrat Bill Bradley.

In Illinois, seven-term Democratic Rep. Richard J. Durbin defeated Republican state Rep. Al Salvi to collect the seat vacated by a fellow Democrat, Paul Simon.

Among the many incumbents returned to office yesterday were 93-year-old Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a Republican first elected to the Senate in 1954, and his Republican colleague, Jesse Helms, who for the second time defeated Democrat Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte.

The battle for the Senate was particularly volatile because of a record number of retirements, including such leading moderates Bradley of New Jersey and Nunn of Georgia, both Democrats, and Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas and Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, both Republicans.

Republicans had controlled the House by a margin of 236 Republicans to 198 Democrats, and one independent. Their Senate majority included 53 senators; 47 senators are Democrats.

Lawmakers in both parties have been anticipating yesterday's election almost as soon as the 1994 results gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Republicans were keenly aware that the last time they won both houses of Congress -- in 1952 -- they kept the majority for only two years.

Republicans were determined to prove that 1994 was not a fluke but rather the sign of a fundamental realignment in the electorate that supported their agenda and would keep their grip on Congress secure for years. Some also felt the need to hurry to carry out their overarching mission to balance the budget and shrink the federal government for fear they had only limited time.

"The whole party went on a bender for a year -- giving into our most extreme elements," said Jim Ciccone, a former Bush administration official who has been advising Bob Dole's presidential campaign.

The Democrats, who held the House for 40 years, were at first shocked by their 1994 loss but soon spoiled for a rematch. They found unity and a campaign platform in working to obstruct the Republican agenda.

Democratic congressional leaders persuaded Clinton to provoke a showdown with the Republicans over their seven-year plan to balance the budget, rather than compromise with them on a proposal that would have squeezed many popular social programs, notably Medicare.

Organized labor, not much of a factor in recent elections, was also sparked into action by the 1994 Republican victory. Beginning early in the campaign, labor poured $35 million into attacking Republicans -- particularly the dozen or more freshmen who had won by slender margins in 1994 -- with TV spots highlighting their votes on bills that would tightened spending on Medicare, the environment and education.

Pub Date: 11/06/96

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad