Whatever its effect on the presidential race, majority leader Bob Dole's stunning resignation from the Senate promises to profoundly change the institution he served so faithfully for 27 years.
For one thing, Mr. Dole's exit could help break the legislative logjam that has caught such issues as the minimum wage and the gas tax in its midst. More important, it may mark the end of an era in which a coalition of moderates held sway over the Senate agenda.
Trent Lott, the conservative junior senator from Mississippi, is Dole's likely successor as majority boss. Thus the daily work of both sides of Capitol Hill may now be dominated by Southerners from the right edge of the GOP: Senator Lott, and Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the increasingly powerful majority leader of the House.
While it's unclear what effect the new generation of congressional leaders will have, observers agree that younger lawmakers in both parties are more ideological. To some, it's a recipe for gridlock. Others argue that distinctions offer voters clearer choices.
Either way, Dole's Senate legacy may pale in comparison with the transformation his departure portends.
"As a whole, Democrats have moved to the left, and Republicans have become more conservative," says Florida Sen. Connie Mack (R). "Clearly, the next election will indicate the real mind-set of the American people."
Yet the widening partisan gap in Congress is already evident. Dozens of veteran moderates in both chambers have announced their retirements this year - many of whom were denied leadership roles or passed over for chairmanships.
The race to replace Dole is still up for grabs, but it's clear that Mr. Lott has an edge over such rivals as Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma. Last year, in the race for House majority whip, Lott defeated Dole's candidate, fellow moderate Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming by one vote, largely through the support of younger members. Although he remained neutral in the primaries, Lott was widely believed to support Dole's more-conservative rival, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm (R).
According to an analysis of lifetime voting records by the National Conservative Union, Mr. Lott has voted for conservative positions 94 percent of the time. By contrast, Dole's tally is 82 percent.
In the House, the same gap is embodied by the 73-member GOP freshman class, which stands out in the annals of Congress as one of its most partisan and confrontational. At times they have even clashed with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"The freshman class and some classes from the last two or three election cycles consist of people whose views solidified in the Reagan years," says Jeff Hollingsworth, executive director of the Conservative Union. "They did not come here to be career politicians or to do good things for government, but to scale it back. Some of them seem willing to sacrifice their political careers for it."
After a series of missteps early this year, Mr. Gingrich recently ceded daily control of House proceedings to majority leader Armey. Conservative Union rankings indicate a similar ideological divide between these two men. Gingrich's voting record was 89 percent conservative, while Armey's stood at 97.
During a floor debate about raising the minimum wage this month, the two leaders delivered back-to-back speeches on the House floor. Armey railed against the measure, while Gingrich acknowledged its popularity, and pushed to bring it to a vote.
"Lott and Armey would give the Republicans a more consistently conservative message," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. "On any controversial issue, they almost always tilt to the right."
The apparent ascendancy of these two Southern conservatives, and of the House freshman class, reflects three long-term political trends, says American Enterprise Institute fellow Norman Ornstein.
First, Mr. Ornstein says, redistricting in the South created many staunchly Republican House districts. Second, the South as a whole has become a Republican power base, and third, a decade of grass-roots activism by conservative groups like the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association has made it more difficult for moderates to survive primary contests.
Observers note that Democratic activists, including organized labor and women's groups, have also stepped up advocacy. In the Oregon race to fill the Senate seat of longtime moderate Bob Packwood (R), Hollingsworth notes, the contest came down to a choice between Gordon Smith, a conservative Republican, and Ron Wyden, a liberal Democrat.
Nevertheless, Ornstein argues that just because the leadership moves closer to reflecting the ideology of party members, "it doesn't mean policy moves to the right." Although Lott is attuned to conservative ideals, "he is very much a pragmatist."
Indeed, Lott himself played down his conservatism to reporters on Wednesday. "Don't forget that I have a populist streak," he said. "I'm the son of a shipyard worker and a schoolteacher and I come from the poorest state in the country. I do some things that don't fit the mold."
While saying he would be more confrontational than Dole - challenging President Clinton's reappointment of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, for example - Lott noted he supports a bill to ease Amtrak toward financial independence, rather than cutting its subsidy completely, as many conservatives advocate.
But in the end, Hollingsworth says, the new era in Congress will eliminate "the big fuzzy middle of people who don't know where they stand." While it may be harder to reach consensus on some issues, he says, "we may wind up with legislation built on strong principles, not just legislation for its own sake."