GOP celebrations may be short-lived

Posted: Sunday, November 10, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Newly empowered Republicans are rejoicing on Capitol Hill, but turning last week's midterm sweep into legislative victories won't be a waltz. The shellacking Democrats took could make them more focused and combative, especially in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election.

Also, the GOP takeover of the Senate thrusts into leadership posts some independent-minded members who don't always see eye to eye with the president -- including political nemesis John McCain of Arizona and moderate Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. Lugar is one of the few Republicans to openly criticize the administration's Iraq policy.

Projections showing deficits out to 2005 will make it hard for President Bush to pay for his defense, homeland security and tax-cut priorities. And war with Iraq would further aggravate the shortfall.

''Everybody should be careful what they pray for,'' said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. ''They (Republicans) are going to inherit this huge deficit. And if the economy doesn't turn around, the deficit is going to go up even more.''

Out of power in the Senate, the Democrats will have less incentive to strike deals with the Bush-led Republicans, analysts suggest. That could perpetuate gridlock, not ease it. Republicans will control the chamber with 51, possibly 52, votes -- well short of the 60 needed to stop a Democratic filibuster or other delaying tactics.

As Congress prepared for this week's postelection lame-duck session, some GOP strains were surfacing amid the celebrations.

Bush told the Senate to send him legislation to establish a Department of Homeland Security -- stalled by Democrats over concerns about workers' rights -- by Christmas. ''I want it done. It is a priority,'' he said.

That came as a surprise to some Senate Republicans, who had been privately told by incoming Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., that the lame-duck session would just last a week and that the homeland bill wouldn't come up until next year. After meeting with Bush on Friday, Lott said he would try on homeland security but ''it would be a big leap.''

Democrats were surveying the election wreckage and regrouping.

''We're not going away. We're going to keep fighting,'' said soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Some Democrats blamed their midterm losses on accommodations Daschle and Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., made with the White House on Iraq and other issues. Those days of cooperation may be numbered.

House Democrats were selecting a new minority leader after Gephardt quit, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., appeared likely to win. Unlike Gephardt, she voted against Bush's Iraq war resolution and probably would be more confrontational.

Bush also must negotiate his way among veteran -- and sometimes grumpy -- GOP stalwarts who will chair Senate committees.

Incoming Foreign Relations chair Lugar is a political moderate and internationalist -- with views more akin to those of outgoing chair Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., than to administration hard-liners. Lugar joined Biden last month on legislation to limit Bush's authority to use force against Iraq, backing off only after heavy pressure from the White House.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the incoming chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is an independent voice who often is tough on business and not always in sync with the administration on tax proposals.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a moderate known for seeking bipartisan compromises, will probably chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He's less enamored of Bush's proposal for drilling in Alaska wildlife areas than the panel's previous top Republican, Frank Murkowski, who was elected governor of Alaska.

The Appropriations Committee chairmanship goes to Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who has feuded with White House budget director Mitch Daniels almost as much as previous chair Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

For now, Republicans weren't thinking about future friction -- they were too busy rejoicing in their victory.

''There is no doubt that the president did something really historical, he put it all on the line, and he won,'' said McCain, incoming chair of the Senate Commerce Committee.

But the Arizona Republican, who was Bush's 2000 rival for the GOP presidential nomination and has clashed with him on campaign finance reform and global warming, couldn't let it go at that.

''You know, political successes have very short half-lives in America,'' McCain added. ''Things can change very rapidly.''

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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