GOP Chances to Win Majority in Congress Distant, but Rising

COULD it be? Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the ebullient Republican phrasemaking machine with the thick white bangs, as Speaker of the House?

With each passing week, the still-remote scenario of Republican gains in congressional races this November winning them control of the House, the Senate, or both, is becoming easier to imagine.

What could make it possible is what appears to be a trend toward even greater Republican gains than forecast a couple of months ago, combined with possible Democratic converts to the Republican fold -

lured by the promise of power through plum committee posts.

This year is turning out to be radically unpredictable, with at least 110 highly competitive congressional races and voter dissatisfaction near historic highs.

Several signs indicate that voter sentiment is cutting against Democrats.

The most dramatic development came in last week's all-party primary in Washington State, when House Speaker Tom Foley gathered only 35 percent of the vote against three Republican opponents. Two subsequent polls show him well behind his remaining Republican opponent.

Nationally, a Gallup Poll asking voters whether they plan to vote Democrat or Republican for Congress found a slight advantage to Republicans for the first time ever.

Even in 1980, when Republicans won the White House and the Senate, and netted a 33-seat gain in the House, Democrats still led in the party-preference poll.

And Republican voters, it appears, are showing up at the polls this year. In primaries, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, Democratic turnout dropped this year from the last nonpresidential election year, while Republican turnout rose slightly.

This suggests that Republicans are more motivated against Congress and the Clinton administration while Democrats are more ambivalent. ``Everything in this report should heighten Democratic worries about this fall's election,'' says the committee's director, Curtis Gans.

None of this brings Republican majorities anywhere close to likely. The GOP would need a net gain of 40 seats in the House and seven in the Senate to elect their own leader in each chamber and control committee chairmanships.

Democratic defections

But if they come close, then a handful of Democrats and one in the Senate could potentially be lured into switching parties with the promise of plum posts in a Republican Congress.

Some estimates of potential converts in the House run as high as a dozen. Mr. Cook figures that it is no higher than three to five, all conservative Southerners.

That would mean Republicans would need a gain of at least 35 in November, a number that only the most optimistic Republican politicos will forecast. Most estimates run in the mid-20s.

In the Senate, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby is the only name discussed as a potential GOP convert. That would leave six seats the Republicans need to pick up in November, and most forecasts project three or four.

Republicans are leaving no mystery about what agenda a Congress led by Mr. Gingrich and Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas would set. On Tuesday, 320 Re-publican House candidates signed a compact committing them to reach a recorded vote on each of 10 issues within 100 days of a Republican-controlled Congress.

The list includes amending the Constitution to require balanced federal budgets within seven years, granting a $500 tax credit for each child in a family, cutting taxes on capital gains, and limiting terms to six years in the House and 12 years in the Senate.

Reaganomics redux

Democrats in Congress and in the White House take this Republican agenda seriously, mindful that similar vows in the late 1970s presaged the Reagan administration tax cuts of 1981.

White House aides, recalling the Reagan tax cuts, warn that the new Republican promises would raise federal deficits by tens of billions of dollars.

But the talk of Republican majorities is no longer ``blue smoke,'' says Everett Ladd, director of the Roper Center for the Study of Public Opinion.

``The dynamics are different than in any other election in modern times,'' says Charles Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report and a close student of congressional races.

The most striking aspect of the mood of the electorate according to Dr. Ladd, is the nonpartisan dissatisfaction and resentment of Congress.

Speaker Foley argues that it has always been this way. But polls from 1945 show that 62 percent said Congress was about as good as could be expected in a large nation. In a recent poll by the Roper Center, only 7 percent agreed. ``Pretty extraordinary,'' says Ladd.

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