DEMOCRATS in Congress see storm flags flying as the 1994 midterm elections pick up momentum.
Party strategists say Democrats could lose 20, 25, or even 30 seats to Republicans in the House of Representatives. It would be a huge Republican victory and a blow to President Clinton.
``Anti-incumbent sentiment is even stronger this year than it was in 1992,'' says one Democratic official. ``Even though the economy is better ... the picture is quite grim.''
Mr. Clinton, whose budget and tax increase slipped through the House last year with only a two-vote margin, could be in danger of losing his operating majority.
Tony Blankley, an aide to House Republican whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, says: ``If we got 15 or 20 more seats, we would be in philosophical dominance of the House.''
Even though Democrats hold a 257-to-176 edge over House Republicans, about 40 conservative Democratic members, such as Rep. Timothy Penny (D) of Minnesota, frequently side with the GOP on tax and spending issues.
Eight months before the elections, big changes are already afoot. Members of Congress are retiring or leaving the House at a record pace, with 41 announcing plans to quit by year's end.
Others will leave involuntarily. This week, Rep. Craig Washington (D) of Texas became the first incumbent to lose a primary bid for reelection. Next week, in a nationally watched race, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois will battle for political survival against four Democratic rivals.
Mr. Rostenkowski's difficulties are indicative of Democratic troubles. As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he is arguably the most powerful member of the House and central to Clinton's reform of health care and welfare. Yet voter anger is so high, and his image so tarnished, that the latest Chicago polls give him support from only 27 percent of the voters.
Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says turnover in the House this year could run as high as 100 seats.
If those 100 were added to the 110 freshmen elected in 1992, and the 44 in 1990, it would mean that over 60 percent of the members of Congress would have been replaced in the 1990s.
What's behind the high attrition rate?
A Democratic operative says voters are furious with the government, especially with Congress. The country has serious problems, and Washington seems ineffective.
``People feel financially insecure,'' he says. ``But that's not all. If they take a subway, they wonder if they'll be shot.
"They worry that they'll lose their health care. They may get fired - three weeks short of getting a pension. Of if they get a pension, the company may go broke. And if Congress passes health care, they figure it won't be a good plan,'' he adds.
Democratic dominance in Washington also may be hurting the party's political prospects in November. During the Reagan-Bush years, Democrats on Capitol Hill could blame the White House when things went wrong. Now Democrats run everything here.
One Democratic strategist notes ruefully: ``We are increasingly identified with Congress, as an institution. One can deduce, if you've got an institution everyone hates, and we are identified with it, we are going to suffer at the polls.''
If all this Democratic pessimism is borne out this fall, the impact on the president's next two years in Washington could be enormous.
Charles Cook, editor of ``The Cook Political Report,'' says: ``The Clinton agenda for '95 and '96 will have to be substantially more moderate, if not conservative. It will be a fundamentally different agenda than we've seen so far.''
NEW taxes, for example, would be out. Welfare reform would be in. Big new spending programs, except for crime, would be out. Attacking the budget deficit would be in.
With change imminent, Dr. Ornstein warns Democrats: ``This is the year to bite the bullet'' on tough issues, like congressional reform. If Congress dallies until 1995, reform could come back in a ``far more radical'' way next year, with freshmen ``bomb-throwers'' ready to clean house, he says.
If Democratic losses are high, it would be no surprise. In 1982, President Reagan's Republicans lost 26 seats in his first midterm election. Similarly, President Johnson's Democrats dropped 47 House seats in his midterm.
Typically, the ``in'' party loses 13 seats in the first midterm of a new president. But Democratic sources are convinced they will do worse than that.
One Democrat says the situation reminds him of his days as a football player. Facing a particularly tough opponent, his coach told the team: ``You're going to go out there and get killed, but just keep the losses down.''