WASHINGTON — EVEN before the list of worst abusers of the House bank has been formally released, both parties are sizing up the damage and the opportunities.
For the Republicans, who, according to unofficial lists, have fewer egregious abusers than the Democrats, it is a campaign issue made in heaven.
The United States attorney's office announcement that it has started an inquiry into possible criminal conduct at the bank makes the issue even more heavenly. "This is made to order for a 30-second sound bite," says an aide to a Republican leader. Even if some members can explain why they wrote so many bad checks - or even a few - voters will tune out after they hear "check bouncer," he says. GOP strategy
Republican Party strategists, like House whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, have long sought to make a concerted, nationwide effort that would pit challengers against every Democratic incumbent in the country.
This year, a combination of redistricting, anti-incumbent feeling, and now the check-kiting fiasco has produced the largest field of Republicans running for Congress ever, more than 700, and record fund-raising. Democrats, who have controlled Congress since 1955, currently have a commanding majority, 256 to 167.
A Republican return to the congressional majority has gone from "the realm of fantasy to the realm of optimism," says Tony Blankley, Congressman Gingrich's spokesman.
Democrats scoff at such pronouncements. Avoiding talk of a "grand national strategy," they urge observers to look at each race individually. Party observers expect some of the top check-kiters to make a strong bid to keep their seats. "I'm not hearing that Sikorski is a goner," says Steve Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Minnesota. Democratic Rep. Gerry Sikorski has admitted to 671 bad checks in 39 months.
"Let each member lay out the records, explain the situation, and make the best case," says Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The Democratic Party has long been a strong congressional party - so strong, in fact, that some Democrats complain that they've gotten too comfortable in that role and have lost their ability to compete for the White House.
Though Democrats acknowledge the Republicans may make some inroads into their large congressional majority, they say several factors favor them. "We put up better challengers and better candidates, and we are largely liked," says a Democratic aide.
A number of Democratic congressional districts could go to Republicans this time around, however, because of a rule central to the etiquette of both parties: Politicians who operate inside a state party apparatus don't run against incumbents, even those who appear mortally wounded.
This means some of the strongest Democrats won't be running as a preemptive strategy to keep a seat Democratic - unless, of course, the political state powers-that-be can lean on a weak incumbent to step aside.
Some incumbents will face challengers in their primaries, but the opponents will be mavericks, not party insiders. By running without strong state party support, these mavericks forgo party information and analysis, volunteer support, fund-raising lists, and support of officials.
Of the incumbent Democrats who have been listed among the top 24 check-kiters, in unofficial leaked information, party insiders see only five as seriously vulnerable: Charles Hatcher of Georgia, who was overdrawn by more than his next paycheck in 35 of 39 months; Edward Feighan of Ohio, overdrawn eight months; Mary Rose Oakar of Ohio, 21 months; James Scheuer of New York, eight months; and Joe Early of Massachusetts, 15 months.
Boston Democratic consultant Michael Goldman says Mr. Early was already in trouble: Questions have been raised over gifts his children received and over his relations with the district attorney in Springfield. Bush and Quayle: 'fess up
Some Democrats are starting to say "fair is fair" and wondering out loud if all the former congressmen in the executive branch, including the president, vice-president, and many Cabinet members, should release their House bank records to public scrutiny.
"If they are trying to make this a litmus-test issue, let's have full disclosure," says Congressman Fazio.
Given the difficulty the House ethics committee had pulling together the account information for current members, it may be nearly impossible to reconstruct President Bush's and Vice-President Quayle's accounts. The president served in Congress from 1966 to 1970, Quayle from 1977 to 1981.
Republicans call the idea a predictable but transparent tactic that won't go anywhere.