Truce declared in battle of the census; Congressional opponents defer sampling debate until numbers come in


WASHINGTON -- After three years of partisan wrangling, legislative brinkmanship and legal suits, a strange new mood has enveloped the battle over the 2000 Census: peace.

With neither side able to impose its will on the other, Republicans and Democrats have halted their fight over whether the Census Bureau can use a method called statistical sampling to supplement the next census.

Instead, lawmakers have decided to wait until after the census is completed next year to resume their fight. At that point, they will battle over whether population figures derived from sampling can be used to draw boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts.

"I feel like I've been in a war zone for the last three years," said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat who has fought for sampling. "Right now, what we've got is a truce."

The Clinton administration plans to have the Census Bureau produce two official sets of population figures. First, the bureau will count as many people as it can by using conventional methods: sending out forms and then dispatching census-takers to those households that failed to return the forms. Then the bureau will use sampling techniques -- interviewing residents from a sample of 300,000 households -- and use that information to adjust the original count.

Statisticians say sampling is much more accurate than traditional means. But because it will probably result in an increase in the number of people, mainly immigrants and inner-city black and Hispanic residents, in historically Democratic areas, both parties view sampling as benefiting Democrats and hurting Republicans when legislative lines are drawn.

Under the law, the next president must give the states official population counts for redistricting by April 1, 2001, less than three months after being inaugurated. Last year, in cases brought by House Republicans and conservative groups, the Supreme Court ruled that the use of sampling for reapportionment -- the determination of each state's allocation of seats in the House -- violated federal law. But the justices did not rule on whether sampling could be used for redistricting.

As a result, the battle over which set of figures a state will use in redistricting will be fought first in state legislatures and then in the courts.

With little prospect of winning a fight in Congress over sampling and eager not to be seen as harming the conduct of the census, both parties have halted their battle.

Democrats have stopped suggesting that Republicans are racist for opposing sampling. And Republicans have toned down their anti-sampling statements because they are betting that Gov. George W. Bush of Texas will win the White House next year and that, for redistricting purposes, a Bush administration will provide only population figures reached through conventional census-taking methods.

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