Capitol reins up for grabs amid tight race


WASHINGTON - With elections less than a week away, Republicans are tantalizingly close to gaining control of both the White House and Congress for the first time in nearly a half-century.

The down-to-the-wire national campaign has all but obscured the prospects for that historic achievement, which would cap decades of partisan realignment away from the Democrats and toward the Republicans.

"My hunch is, that's the most logical scenario," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "It's starting to look like the momentum is swinging to Bush, and you'd have to say that the odds are, whoever wins the presidency will carry the House."

Bush is maintaining a narrow advantage over Al Gore, according to the latest opinion polls. In the battle for Congress, Republicans stand a good chance of keeping their majorities in the House and Senate. Most analysts rule out large Democratic gains in either body, but say a final spurt is possible for one side or the other.

A leading Democratic strategist in Washington, speaking on condition that he not be identified, says he now expects Gore to lose and for his party to fall short of picking up the six or seven House seats they need to gain control.

"The best way to have a Democratic House is to have Al Gore do well," said the strategist, referring to the tendency of House contests to mimic presidential voting trends. "But the polls are showing Gore between 1 and 6 points behind. I don't think we win back the House under that scenario."

Control of the presidency and Congress still hangs in the balance, as it has all autumn, with many politicians saying that the outcome remains too close to call. If the election turns out to be as tight as polls suggest, it could take days until enough ballots are counted to know for certain who will rule in Washington next year.

Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of an independent newsletter on congressional campaigns, predicts that Democrats will score a net pickup of five seats in the House and between two and four in the Senate. That would not be enough to wrest either chamber from the Republicans, who have held both for the past six years.

A GOP sweep?

"It's certainly possible for the Republicans to go three for three," Rothenberg says of a potential GOP sweep. But he says that he has trouble believing that would happen, because the election is very close and there is a slight chance that even if Democrats lose the presidency and fail to take the House they could still capture the Senate.

It has been 46 years since Republicans reigned over all Washington. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in his first term as president of the 48 states, and Bill Haley and the Comets had just recorded a tune, "Rock Around the Clock," that popularized a new form of music known as rock 'n' roll.

The Republican majority in Congress was so fragile that it lasted just two years. In 2001, power is also likely to be narrowly divided. Bipartisan coalitions will be required for anything to get done, regardless of which party holds a majority in the Capitol.

Haley Barbour, a former Republican national chairman, isn't prepared to declare that a GOP sweep is a certainty next week.

"We know that the majorities, if we are lucky enough to win both houses, will be very small, and that a Bush administration would have to have a very bipartisan approach to governing," he says. "That outcome would validate us as the majority party, but it certainly wouldn't put us in the position of running the government as Clinton and the Democrats were able to do in 1993 and 1994, until they ran out of gas."

Senate Democrats would be able to employ parliamentary maneuvers to block any Republican initiatives that failed to attract significant Democratic support. Still, some of the measures that have drawn vetoes or veto threats from President Clinton over the past eight years might become law with Republicans in charge at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Among the initiatives on that list are those that attracted bipartisan backing: full or partial repeal of the "marriage penalty," which forces some dual-income couples to pay more income tax than if they were single; an end to the estate tax; a ban on "partial-birth abortion"; and limits on the punitive damages that could be claimed in lawsuits, including medical malpractice cases.

Keeping their distance

Despite the stakes in the battle for Congress, one of the oddities of the election is how little the presidential candidates have had to say on the subject.

Bush, in appealing to moderates, has kept his distance from the conservative Republican leaders in Washington, who remain unpopular with many swing voters - though less so since the end of the Newt Gingrich era. Bush seldom promotes the election of a Republican Congress, preferring to advertise himself as a healer who would reach out to Democrats.

The Texas governor's theme of ending partisan bickering in Washington has made it riskier for Gore to target Republicans in Congress. If the vice president were to go on the attack, it might reinforce Bush's depiction of him as a divisive figure who couldn't change the atmosphere in the capital.

It has been left to Clinton, who is being held at arm's length by Gore, to make the argument that a Democrat is needed in the White House to check the Republican Congress. "It's very important that someone be here in this job to restrain the impulses of the right wing of the Republican Congress," the president said last week.

But Democratic leaders had been counting on the president to whip up a pre-election fight with Republicans as a way of reminding voters that the GOP-led Congress shares blame for partisan gridlock in Washington. That October showdown never materialized.

Instead, congressional Republicans devised a "rope-a-dope" defense of prolonged negotiations with the White House that largely prevented Clinton from drawing attention to his role in neutralizing the Republican Congress.

The crisis in the Middle East, which erupted "at a very critical period in Campaign 2000" last month, drew the public's attention overseas just "at the time that Clinton would have been winding up for his punch," adds Ed Rogers, a White House political director in the Bush administration.

The congressional committees of the two major parties have also passed up the opportunity to run commercials about the importance of controlling the legislative branch. That's a switch from 1996, when Republicans pushed the re-election of a GOP Congress as a counterbalance to Clinton, once it became clear that Bob Dole was going to lose.

This year's presidential race, the most closely contested in at least 20 years, has prevented Democrats from making the argument that retaking the House or Senate is the only thing standing in the way of Republican rule in Washington. Making that case might well be seen as a signal that his party had lost faith in Gore.

Montgomery County

One of the few contests where taking back the House has emerged as a dominant issue is in Montgomery County, where Democrat Terry Lierman is challenging Rep. Constance A. Morella, a liberal Republican representative.

"There are only six seats standing in the way of a Democratic majority," says a Lierman television ad. "Connie Morella's a nice person, but she's a Republican. ... And she's promised to vote for a Republican Congress."

Morella, a 14-year veteran popular with her largely Democratic constituency, is favored to win, as are virtually all incumbents up for re-election. Though all 435 House seats and 34 Senate seats are at stake, only a tiny fraction of that number are truly competitive.

Control of Congress will likely turn on the results in 11 key Senate contests and a relative handful of House districts where no incumbent is on the ballot.

In the Senate, Republicans now control 54 seats, to 46 for the Democrats. In case of a 50-50 tie, the new vice president, either Dick Cheney or Joseph I. Lieberman, would tip control to his party.

In the House, Republicans control 224 seats to the Democrats' 211. Democrats would need to pick up at least seven seats to claim a majority. But the actual figure could be eight, because renegade Democratic Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. of Ohio has said that he will vote for Republican Rep. Dennis Hastert for speaker when Congress convenes in January.

Hot Senate contests

Races in 11 states next week could make the difference in determining which party controls the Senate. But there often are surprises in states where a close race wasn't forecast, and sometimes the tossups all tip the same way.

Democrats must gain at least four seats overall to knock the Republicans out of the majority if Gore wins the presidency, or five seats if Bush wins. Incumbents are indicated (i).

State ..............Republican .......Democrat .........Outlook

Delaware ..........Bill Roth (i) ......Tom Carper ........Tossup

Florida ............Bill McCollum .....Bill Nelson ........Likely Democratic

Michigan ............Spencer ........Rep. Debbie .......Leans Republican

.....................Abraham (i) ......Stabenow

Minnesota .........Rod Grams (i) ....Mark Dayton ......Leans Democratic

Montana ..........Conrad Burns (i) ..Brian Schweitzer ......Tossup

Missouri ..........John Ashcroft (i)...Mel Carnahan ......Leans Republican*

Nevada ............John Ensign .......Ed Bernstein ........Leans Republican

New Jersey .........Bob Franks ......Jon Corzine .........Leans Democratic

New York ...........Rick Lazio .......Hillary Clinton........Leans Democratic

Virginia .............George Allen .....Charles Robb (i) ....Leans Republican

Washington ........Slade Gorton (i) ..Maria Cantwell ..........Tossup

* Carnahan, who died too late for his name to be taken off the ballot, would be replaced by his widow, Jean Carnahan, if elected.


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