Big question in Congress: Will it be cooperation or confrontation?

President Clinton and the Republican Congress, having both held onto power in Tuesday's election, now face a clear choice: Will they follow the stalemate model of 1995 or the compromise pattern of 1996?

The 1995 course led to a series of government shutdowns and a federal budget six months late. It rejuvenated Mr. Clinton's presidency and set the stage for his reelection. The 1996 course brought sweeping welfare reform, portability of health-care benefits, a rise in the minimum wage, and a federal budget passed on time for the new fiscal year. It may well have saved GOP control of the House of Representatives.

While Republicans keep control of Congress, the makeup of both houses will be considerably different. The GOP Senate caucus, for example, will shift markedly to the right with the addition of conservatives such as Wayne Allard of Colorado, Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback of Kansas, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. The GOP House caucus will have a more Southern flavor: Freshmen saw their ranks thinned somewhat, but GOP gains in open Democratic seats in the South helped maintain control.

Both sides tried to sound conciliatory in the election's aftermath.

Clinton said Americans wanted the two parties to "put aside the politics of division." "When we join our hands ... America always wins," he said.

"I believe that we have an obligation frankly to reach out to the newly re-elected president, who after all campaigned on a balanced budget and targeted tax cuts and being against drugs and being for doing virtually all the things we said we were for," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Despite some new conservative members, the outlook in Congress may be for compromise and moderation as both sides position themselves for elections in 1998 and 2000.

The shift could give new impetus to key parts of the GOP program. Congress will try again for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, which failed the Senate by one (Republican) vote in the last session; tax credits for children; some kind of capital-gains tax cut; and reform of the income-tax system. Term limits on Congress and a tough stance on crime, especially drug trafficking, will also be high on the GOP list, as will turning more power back to the states.

"We're going to go forward with the agenda we were working on," Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said shortly after the election.

New GOP agenda

Entitlements reform, especially in Medicare, will be needed if the budget is to be balanced and the programs preserved. And both sides claim they got the message that the public wants campaign-finance reform - although they have said that before. In both cases, a bipartisan commission may be necessary to bridge differences.

The two sides will part company, however, over congressional attempts to investigate the behavior of Clinton and top aides in a series of scandals that are still playing out, ranging from Whitewater to the White House collection of FBI files on a series of top Republicans.

Clinton also wants to soften some provisions of the new welfare-reform package and take another step on health-care reform, but whether Congress will go along with either is doubtful, absent a public outcry.

"In order to get any kind of progressive action across the broad spectrum of issues ... we'll need to build center-out coalitions," says Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist "New Democrat" think tank. "In a closely divided Congress ... you're not going to win by partisan polarizing." The White House echoed that view yesterday: Spokesman Mike McCurry called the election results "a mandate for a very sensible, centrist approach."

Key to the congressional approach will be new committee chairmen. In the Senate, Ted Stevens of Alaska is in line to head the Appropriations Committee, while John McCain of Arizona will move up to the Transportation chair and Fred Thompson of Tennessee will head the Governmental Affairs Committee. Connie Mack of Florida is expected to take the No. 3 leadership position.

Moderates John Chaffee of Rhode Island and James Jeffords of Vermont may need to fight off challengers to their chairmanships by more-conservative members. New House chairmen will include Larry Combest of Texas on the Agriculture Committee, Dan Burton of Indiana on Government Reform and Oversight, and F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin on Science.

The reelection of the Republican Congress came in the face of a ferocious Democratic and labor effort to take back the legislature. The AFL-CIO spent more than $35 million and an unknown amount in in-kind donations targeting freshmen and vulnerable Republicans. While that may have made the difference in a few races, it did not bring the Democratic majority that union president John Sweeney sought and has left labor with a Republican Party furious about the union tactics.

In the end, the electoral math was too great for the Democrats to overcome, and Mr. Gingrich wasn't unpopular enough to drag down most incumbent Republicans. The GOP held onto all but about 15 of the 73 freshmen seats, while capturing half the 18 open Democratic seats in the South. The Democrats needed to win 19 seats to take control of the House; at presstime they looked set to pick up anywhere from five to 12.

Surprise losses included three GOP incumbents in New England - Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen of Massachusetts and Gary Franks of Connecticut, one of only two black Republicans in the House - and Martin Hoke of Ohio, who was defeated by former Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich. Most of the defeated Republican freshmen came from marginal districts or they had eked out narrow victories in 1994.

In the Senate, the number of retiring Southern Democrats made a Democratic majority an uphill climb. In the end, Republican gains in that region offset the losses of Larry Pressler of South Dakota.

In addition, the Republicans managed to embarrass Clinton and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska - electing the first Republican senator from Arkansas since the post-Civil War era and grabbing the Nebraska seat held by retiring Democrat James Exon, for a net gain of one or two seats.

The election of Susan Collins (R) makes Maine the second state, after California, to have two women senators. Her election, and that of Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana, preserves the number of women in the Senate at nine.

The number in the House is expected to increase from the current 47. But the number of blacks fell by one to 37. African-American Julia Carson (D) won in Indiana, while Democrats Cynthia McKinney and Sanford Bishop of Georgia fought back serious challenges. The number of Hispanics in the House rose by one.

Exit poll lapses

Blacks were disappointed by the loss of Harvey Gantt (D) to Sen. Jesse Helms (R) in North Carolina's race-tinged contest.

New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith added to campaign folklore after a harrowing night in which exit polls predicted he would lose to former Democratic Rep. Dick Swett. But Mr. Smith won the election by four points.

"It was the largest error in any exit-poll estimate I've ever seen since I've been doing this," says Murray Edelman of Voter News Service.

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