GOP Has a Shot at House Majority

If party plucks 20 House seats in fall vote, Clinton's legislative dreams could be dashed

CAPITOL Hill Republicans are dreamin'.

GOP leaders say they now foresee the day - possibly in 1996, maybe even this year - when they will finally seize control of the House of Representatives after 40 frustrating years in the minority.

The first step toward that elusive goal will come with the Nov. 8 mid-term elections. Political analysts predict Republicans will pick up 20, 25, or even 30 seats. A gain of just 20 seats could stymie important parts of President Clinton's legislative program.

Republican congressional candidates are on the march in nearly every corner of the land. In Georgia, up to three Democratic seats may fall. In Michigan, experts predict a gain of one to three seats for the GOP. In California, four Democratic posts look shaky. In Washington State, even House Speaker Tom Foley (D) is politically threatened.

Charles Cook, a veteran election watcher, says Democratic anxiety is escalating with barely two months left before the election. Mr. Cook, editor of ``The Cook Political Report,'' says:

``The question is whether Democrats are going to take a hit, take a big hit, or take the big hit'' - that is, lose control of the House, the Senate, or both.

A Republican House takeover would be historic - the first GOP majority since Dwight Eisenhower was president in the early 1950s. It would mean a complete reshuffling of the chairmen of House committees, the firing of hundreds of Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill, and election of a GOP House Speaker, probably Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

A strategist for the House Republican leadership predicts that if the election were held today, the GOP would gain 40 seats - enough to boost Republicans from their current 178 to 256 deficit to a 218 to 216 majority.

By Election Day, however, the same Republican strategist expects Democrats will have poured money into key races to salvage their numerical majority - but he expects they still may lose approximately 30 seats.

Democrats, who concede they have deep problems, see a similar scenario. The loss of 30 seats would be no surprise, says one Democratic election specialist.

A number of forces - historic, social, political - are coalescing to boost Republican prospects at a time when Democrats once expected to be celebrating a series of victories: health care reform, an overhauled welfare system, and a booming economy.

A first-term president's party usually loses 15 House seats in the midterm elections. Even if Democrats held their losses to 15 (no one expects this), it would give the GOP 193 votes. Combined with approximately 40 conservative Democrats, Republican clout would be greatly enhanced on issues like taxes and spending.

Several additional factors are pumping up GOP prospects beyond the norm, including:

* Redistricting. New lines drawn after the 1990 census are shifting power to suburban and rural areas (GOP strongholds) and away from urban centers dominated by Democrats.

* Public opinion. Congress sinks steadily lower in public esteem. Since Democrats dominate Congress, they have far more to lose. Their failure to pass congressional reform, despite support from Democratic leaders, also hurts.

* Clinton woes. From Haiti to Somalia to Cuba to Bosnia, President Clinton has struggled with foreign-policy problems that often seem intractable. At home, he confronts gridlock on health care, campaign reform, immigration, and welfare, despite Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

* Conservative revival. Issues like gun control, abortion, term limits, and immigration are fueling activity among moderate-to-conservative voters. In California, the ``Save Our State'' initiative to deny illegal immigrants access to schools and nonemergency medical care could rally tens of thousands of additional conservative voters to the polls (and also help Republican Gov. Pete Wilson win reelection).

Political scientist Earl Black at Rice University in Texas says: ``The South is the Republicans' greatest untapped potential in the House. They picked up nine Southern seats in 1992. They could easily pick up 10 more in 1994.'' Although Mr. Clinton is a Southerner, he is hurting Democratic candidates in the region, Dr. Black says.

``The whole health care thing ... is a net negative in the South. Clinton's program is interpreted as big government,'' he explains.

``We can't pay our debts, and now he proposes the greatest entitlement in the history of the Western world. Combine that with foreign-policy wishywashiness, plus ... character issues, and there's not a great deal that's positive.''

Democrats' main hope: that the new crime bill will boost their prospects among law-and-order Southerners.

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