Even with GOP gains, Congress may tilt left

As Republicans move to the center, House Democrats could opt for liberal leadership.

While the big outcome of Election 2002 – the failure of Democrats to take back the House or to hold the Senate – turned on the slimmest of margins, it's already ushering in what could be a dramatic shift in style and tone on Capitol Hill.

Thursday's departure of Richard Gephardt as Democratic leader of the House set off a leadership struggle that could position the party further to the left. Leading contender Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority whip and highest-ranking woman ever in the US Congress, brings a more strident, ideological style.

At the same time, the exit of conservative icons such as Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and Rep. Dick Armey – and a surge of successful moderates in the last campaign – is setting a more pragmatic tone in Republican ranks.

Many of veteran insurgents of 1994 kept their promise to limit their terms, and are exiting Congress. The loss of majority leader Armey and Senator Gramm – masters of the art of hectoring colleagues on conservative principles from the floor – removes the party's top political ideologues. "Armey and Gramm are people who have made a fight for their convictions – and appear to have largely consistent convictions. There's not a lot of ideological juice in the new Republican Congress," says Patrick Basham, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

At the same time, campaign 2002 produced a bumper crop of GOP moderates, some returning from campaigns they were not expected to win. One of the vote's quiet victors is the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of moderates whose members scored surprise upsets in close races. GOP moderates jumped from eight to 11 in the Senate, and to 64 in the House.

President Bush's powerful influence in securing GOP victories in both houses will reinforce party unity and a more pragmatic style in Republican ranks on Capitol Hill. "The party unity scores are skyrocketing for Republicans in both houses. And looking at the new members, the GOP caucus in both houses is going to be the Bush caucus," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Meanwhile, Democrats are in disarray in both houses, as they look for an explanation for this week's historic defeat. The fight for Democratic House leadership broke out in the open Thursday, as Texas Rep. Martin Frost, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, took on Ms. Pelosi. "If we're going to be a majority party, we can't just have liberals. We have to be a broad tent party.... and speak to the vast center of this country," he said in a briefing to reporters.

Unlike Representative Gephardt, Pelosi was an early opponent of Bush on the use of force in Iraq. Dubbed a "San Francisco Democrat" by GOP opponents, she brings a combative style and formidable fundraising capacity. But her liberal positions worry Democratic centrists, who say they'd be unable to build bridges to GOP moderates with her as minority leader.

Senate Democrats could face a parallel challenge. "Democrats could easily throw a rope to moderate Republicans like [Maine Sen.] Susan Collins or Oregon's Gordon Smith ... [and] so create a working majority on most issues. But their instinct right now is to interpret the election as a rejection of centrist or moderate Democratic positions, says Paul Light, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

ALREADY, speculation is growing that some House Democrats may use the struggle as a signal to jump to the Republican Party. Republicans are quietly courting centrists who may feel out of step, should Pelosi win the leadership race. Mr. Frost ruled out speculation that he would "bolt the party" Thursday.

In the Senate, Republican leader Trent Lott says the goal of the new leadership is to "produce results." As majority leader under President Clinton, Senator Lott says he spent most of his time obstructing initiatives he opposed. In the 108th Congress, he says he'll be working with a president "that I have a lot of faith in ..., and that has been proving to be a great leader."

In the Senate, the requirement of 60 votes for passing major legislation will also be a check on how far Republicans can move a radical agenda. "We're still going to have to figure out where we are going to have to compromise," says a senior GOP aide.

The lineup of likely GOP chairmen in the new Senate also represents a broad range of party sensibilities. One of the toughest briefs will be the budget committee, likely to be chaired by Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma. Under Democrats, the Senate was unable to pass a budget this year. With even higher deficits expected next year, Republicans will try to find room for billions in new tax cuts.

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