Power on the Hill will pivot on the moderates

With a bare majority in the House and Senate, the GOP will be forced into coalition-building to move an agenda.

The onus is now on the political leadership in Congress - facing perhaps the tightest party alignment ever, in both House and Senate - to find some way of accomplishing something with their gavels.

While Republicans had to be pleased to hang on to the House of Representatives, although by an even narrower margin than last session, they had to be somewhat taken aback by developments in the Senate. There, they may find themselves in a chamber split 50-50, although they are expected to retain control because of the vice-presidential calculus.

In the noxious, partisan atmosphere that has become official Washington, reaching across the aisle to build bipartisan support will be no small task. Yet the very closeness of this outcome could impel that process of bridge-building.

Indeed, experts say, it may give a new preeminence to the very type of lawmaker whose influence has waned in recent years: the moderate.

"The moderates hold all the cards. They come out of this election a powerbroker," says Marshall Wittmann, a congressional analyst at the Hudson Institute here. "The bottom line is that there will have to be a bipartisan coalition to accomplish anything."

Moderates in the House are already predicting a more prominent role in the next session of Congress on issues such as education, prescription drugs, Social Security, and campaign-finance reform.

"We've got a strong group of moderates in both parties," says Rep. Amo Houghton (R) of New York, a leader of the so-called Main Street Partnership, a centrist group founded after the 1998 elections to shore up the GOP's moderate face. "I'm sure there will be lots of rancor and unhappiness after this election, but we'll get over that. We've got a job to do. The country is looking at us, no matter who is in charge."

Moderates have already demonstrated their resolve to move an agenda. Just last summer, for example, lawmakers such as Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware went over the heads of their own leadership to pass limited campaign-finance reform. Moderates in both parties have also been strong advocates for high-tech industries, including expanding tax credits, increasing the number of visas to bring in foreign high-tech workers, and introducing efforts to bridge the "digital divide" between the technology "haves" and "have nots."

As many of them see it, Election 2000 only strengthens their position. The Republican Main Street Partnership leaders said yesterday: "The defeat of Rep. Jim Rogan (R) of California on the far right and Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D) of Connecticut on the far left clearly demonstrates the voters' mood in this country and their plea for common sense, nonextremist, nondivisive, moderate politics."

In the Senate, the political calculus for both parties is even tighter. The magic number to control the flow of legislation in the Senate is 60 - the number of votes required to end a filibuster. With a 54-to-46 majority last session, GOP leaders were forced to bypass normal processes in the Senate to avoid bruising floor fights.

Some Republicans say this climate will change with a new administration.

"It's going to be different without [Bill] Clinton in the presidency," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi. "We need to reach out and find two or three big things we can do together: Medicare reform, prescription drugs, Social Security, return some taxes to working Americans."

In fact, prospects for bipartisanship probably do turn on the outcome of the presidential race. After the failed candidacy of Walter Mondale in 1984, moderates in the Democratic Party created the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate Democrats that helped shape Mr. Clinton's run for the presidency in 1992. Both Al Gore, then a US senator, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman were early and prominent members.

New Democrats recast the party's agenda on issues such as welfare reform, trade, deficit reduction, and a balanced federal budget - often over objections of the party's more liberal wing.

On Tuesday, New Democrats picked up new recruits in the Senate with the election of Ben Nelson in Nebraska and Bill Nelson in Florida. But analysts say that the new junior senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and other newcomers like Jon Corzine in New Jersey and Mark Dayton in Minnesota, will bolster the more liberal wing of the party.

"It all depends on who becomes the public face of the Democrats. If Al Gore wins, it's the president," says Michael Franc of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. A Gore loss, though, "could strengthen the [Edward] Kennedy-[Tom] Harkin-[Paul] Wellstone wing of the party."

For now, the Senate hangs on the outcome of the presidential contest - and on one remaining race between GOP incumbent Slade Gorton and Democrat Maria Cantwell in Washington, which was too close to call at press time.

Should a 50-50 split materialize, the majority would be determined by a tie-breaking vote of the new vice president. If Dick Cheney breaks the tie, Republicans control the Senate. If Mr. Lieberman takes the gavel, it won't be for long: His replacement in the Senate will be chosen by a Republican governor, and a new GOP senator shifts the balance back to Republicans.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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