WASHINGTON — THE forecast for President Clinton's party is not good this November. Democrats could lose 22 to 30 seats in the House and a handful in the Senate, by most estimates
But bad news in November could be - just could be - good news for Mr. Clinton and his fortunes during the 104th Congress.
The theory among some Washington watchers goes that a more conservative Congress would force Clinton to adopt a more conservative approach that, in turn, would be better appreciated by middle-class voters and position him better for reelection in 1996.
One of Clinton's 1992 campaign positions that most defined him as a ``different kind of Democrat'' or a ``new Democrat'' was his call for overhauling the welfare system with a two-year limit on benefits for each recipient.
But Clinton never got around to introducing this more conservative version of welfare because of his battle over health-care reform - which was perceived as a liberal expansion of government and ``entitlement'' spending.
Welfare reform, government streamlining, and free-trade agreements are all Clinton issues where he is likely to find more allies among moderate Democrats and Republicans than among Democrats alone.
``There's no question but that a significant loss of seats could be a plus for Clinton and not a minus,'' says Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
No one in the White House or in the congressional leadership will believe that Clinton can form Democrat-only majorities on the left, adds Dr. Ornstein.
Most of Clinton's successful programs were those where he built support in the political center among both parties and then moved either left or right as necessary, he says. The bipartisan approach that passed the crime bill in August could be a model for next year, he suggests.
``Clearly, he'll have to pursue a bipartisan approach next year,'' says conservative Democrat Rep. Tim Penny (D) of Minnesota, who led some centrist uprisings against Clinton on spending matters.
Clinton may have a credibility gap in taking a centrist approach on Capitol Hill, says Mr. Penny.
``The problem for Clinton is that he has approached so few issues on a bipartisan basis that it will look like he's only doing it because he has to,'' Penny says.
But the prospects for Clinton's agenda in the 104th Congress, when it convenes in January, hang on a bigger hook - exactly who wins and loses in the November elections.
If the Republican gains are surprisingly strong - and GOP control of both chambers is not entirely out of the question - then Republicans will be in a headier position with tighter unity and less inclination to support Clinton initiatives.
And if many of the Republican gains are at the expense of Democrats who are already in the moderate or conservative camps in their party, then Congress may just end up with fewer centrists and harsher philosophical divisions.
``So we could, believe it or not, have a Congress even more partisan than now,'' says Penny.
The current Congress had the biggest crop of freshman members in decades - 110 representatives and 14 senators. The Democrats among them tended to be more moderate than the average incumbent, says Penny, and the Republicans more conservative than their party colleagues. November elections are likely to bring high turnover again.
But many of the vulnerable Democrats are freshmen and other moderates who are in conservative districts. Rep. Majorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D) of Pennsylvania, for example, is a first-term member in a mostly Republican district facing a very competitive race. She cast the grudging, final vote for the Clinton anti-deficit package last year, but demanded a high-level conference on cutting entitlement spending in her district as her price. It is not clear her district has forgiven her that tax-increasing vote, however.
Penny, who is helping out in campaigns for moderate freshman Democrats, is increasingly concerned that many of them will lose in November. He regards the prospect as a ``tragedy'' that could empty out the bipartisan middle ground in the next Congress.
``For several months, I was saying that next year the moderate middle ground is going to be in power,'' he says. Now he senses that in the next six weeks the voters will break to the right and replace moderate Democrats with more ideologically conservative Republicans. The remaining Democrats would also tend to be more liberal than the current makeup.
The climate would then be even less conducive to bipartisanship than now. ``It's maddening,'' says Penny. ``The voters are just going to get even more fed up.''
Many retiring members of Congress are moderate in philosophy, in tactics, or both. That list includes Penny himself in the House and minority leader Bob Michel (R) of Illinois, whose genial style will be replaced by the more high-pitched and provocative tone of Newt Gingrich of Georgia. The Senate is losing John Danforth (R) of Missouri and Dave Durenberger (R) of Minnesota, two Republicans often willing to form centrist coalitions with Democrats.
But the mainstream estimates of GOP gains, which run between 22 and 30 seats in the House, do leave open the possibility of stronger bipartisanship than has prevailed during the current Congress.