Congress likely to remain closely divided

Posted: Friday, November 01, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Look for the Democrats to steer away from President Bush's economic policies if they win the House on Tuesday. And expect the Republicans, if they retake the Senate, to move vigorously on judicial nominations the Democrats have bottled up.

A lot more could change on Capitol Hill than who sits in the speaker's or majority leader's office.

To make much difference from the current Congress -- Republicans control the House by seven seats, Democrats the Senate by one -- one of the parties probably would have to win both chambers. That's very much up in the air as Election Day nears.

History suggests the president's party will lose seats in a midterm election, but ''it's an unusual time, and I don't think normal patterns apply,'' said Ron Faucheux, editor of Campaigns & Elections, a magazine for politicians.

Whatever the final count, experts say Congress will remain closely divided. That will make any radical new direction unlikely.

But there could well be changes.

If the Democrats do gain control, they would see it as vindication of their opposition to Bush's economic and foreign policies as they start to choose a candidate to try to topple him in 2004.

The Democrats would regain the House chairmanships they lost in 1994 and inherit exclusive authority over what measures reach the floor, a blow to any legislative plans Bush might have.

''If we retain the majority in the Senate and regain the majority in the House, I think it will send a loud and clear message to everybody that the people want a new economic policy,'' said Dick Gephardt, the Democratic leader from Missouri.

The Democrats, he said, would try to revitalize the economy with short-term investments in school construction and other needs, one-time tax rebates and cuts for families and for company investment, a long-term plan to balance the federal budget, protections for people's pensions and an increase in the minimum wage.

A Democratic Senate would continue to block many of Bush's conservative judicial nominees and force him to think carefully about any future Supreme Court nominee.

Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader from South Dakota, also has promised to stop Bush's tax cut from becoming permanent. Democrats have blamed the federal budget deficit partly on the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut.

''Can we repeal it? No,'' Daschle said. ''Can we stop it from becoming permanent? Yes.''

And if the Republicans hold the House and win the Senate?

After pushing through the tax cut in the first few months of the Bush presidency, a Republican Congress would spend much of its time defending it and trying to add new tax reductions.

GOP lawmakers also would look to bolster Bush's re-election chances by pushing as many of his legislative priorities as possible, including a strong new Homeland Security Department and initiatives involving prescription drug benefits for senior citizens, health insurance and energy policy.

A Republican-controlled Senate would move first and foremost to confirm as many of Bush's lifetime judicial nominees as possible and hope for a quick Supreme Court vacancy so the president could begin shaping that court before the 2004 election campaign.

No Bush judicial nominees were confirmed in the first six months of the 2001 congressional session while Mississippi Republican Trent Lott was Senate majority leader. The Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed 80 of 130 U.S. Appeals and District Court nominees before the midterm elections but rejected or delayed the ones Republicans wanted most.

The GOP wouldn't waste any time in 2003, Lott said. ''I'll tell you one other thing we would do immediately, we would confirm a lot of qualified men, women and minorities for the federal judiciary that are languishing now,'' he said.

No matter which way Congress shakes out, don't expect to see much landmark legislation completed before the 2004 elections, said Sarah Binder, a Georgetown University professor and the author of ''Stalemate,'' an upcoming book about gridlocked Congresses.

''Generally speaking, it seems more that in these runups to presidential elections when there is a fair amount of polarization between the parties, that they have an incentive not to compromise, to keep these issues on the table as election themes,'' Binder said.

The same cast of characters will headline the show under the Capitol dome.

Daschle has a lock on the position of Democratic leader and will stoke any presidential ambitions from that position. Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois is secure as the top Republican in the House.

Lott took a lot of the blame for losing the Senate -- the Democrats took control when Republican James Jeffords of Vermont switched from Republican to independent in May 2001. But GOP Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma, his strongest challenger, probably won't take him on.

Gephardt wants another run at the presidency, and his departure would lead to a battle between Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi of California and Democratic Caucus chair Martin Frost of Texas for the top House Democratic position.

Both sides have plans to go after potential party-switchers just in case the new Congress' margin is one or two votes.

Asked whether Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., could go Democratic next year, Daschle smiled and said ''possible.'' Lott, moving to protect that flank, emphasized that Chafee ''has input into our discussions about leadership decisions and substance as well as the agenda.''

Republicans have hopes of snagging Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., for their side. Miller has sided with them on issues ranging from education to ergonomics to tax cuts but has said he's not switching.



CONTACT US

  • Switchboard: 907-283-7551
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-283-3584
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Business Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-335-1257
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback

ADVERTISING

SUBSCRIBER SERVICES

SOCIAL NETWORKING

MORRIS ALASKA NEWS