What If GOP Loses House?

Democratic Congress may not be to the liking of Dole - or Clinton

Barring a seismic shift in the next six weeks, the only suspense on election day is likely to be over the outcome of the congressional races.

Ironically, in that arena, President Clinton's popularity may work against his best interests.

The president's coattails may be long enough - or Bob Dole's short enough - for the Democrats to win back the majority it lost in 1994, at least in the House. But several analysts argue that, given the agenda he is promoting on the campaign trail and the probable composition of a new Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill, Mr. Clinton would be better off with Republicans in charge of the legislative branch.

"The best scenario for Bill Clinton is narrow Republican control of both" the House and Senate, says John Pitney, a political scientist at the Claremont McKenna College in California. "There is a greater potential for conflict with Democrats in control, not just between the president and the Congress, but also within the Democratic Party."

Republicans and Democrats are at a virtual dead heat for control of Capitol Hill. Various national polls suggest that, on the question of which party would do a better job of running Congress, voters are slightly more in favor of Democrats.

If this parity persists, the outcome on Nov. 5 will depend heavily on turnout at the polls. This is where the presidential race becomes an important factor. Democrats need to gain just 20 seats in the House and three seats in the Senate to win back the majorities they lost in 1994. Handicappers say the president's party could easily pick up 25 to 30 districts now held by Republicans.

The question is what happens to those seats now held by retiring Democrats. Many are in Republican strongholds, such as the South. Whether voters turn out in strong enough numbers to cause a shift in those districts, however, depends in large part on Mr. Dole, the GOP challenger. If he fails to close in on Clinton by November, he may depress participation among Republicans at the polls.

That possibility is cause for enough concern among GOP incumbents that Dole made a remarkable detour from the campaign trail to pay a visit to Capitol Hill last week to try to reassure his jittery former colleagues.

While Republicans worry about losing their majority, analysts point to several reasons why Clinton might not want his own party running the legislative machinery in Washington.

Consider two New York Democrats: Rep. Charles Rangel and Sen. Patrick Moynihan.

If Democrats win back control of Congress, committees will fall into the hands of such senior liberals as these two lawmakers, and it is unlikely that the party would be able to impose the same strong top-down structure of leadership that GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich has engineered. Mr. Gingrich was largely responsible for building his GOP majority; Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, the likely Speaker under Democratic control, does not enjoy that kind of relationship with his members.

Tensions would rise if Mr. Rangel and Mr. Moynihan become chairmen of the two most powerful panels on Capitol Hill, the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees, which oversee legislation ranging from tax policy to Medicare.

The two lawmakers were among the most outspoken critics of the GOP welfare bill that Clinton signed into law last month. That law ends a 60-year guarantee of federal aid to poor children. Even though the president has vowed to seek further changes in the new law if reelected, he will have a difficult time bringing Moynihan in line behind his "smaller government" priorities: On welfare, for example, Moynihan is perhaps the most experienced and knowledgeable lawmaker in Washington.

"If the Republicans retain control, Clinton will have to govern in the center," says Ron Peters, an expert on Congress at the University of Oklahoma. "Under that arrangement, we might see quite a productive period," because the next GOP Congress would likely have a sizable moderate bloc for the president to work with. "It would be more difficult having the Democrats in charge. Instead of cutting deals with the Republicans, Clinton would have to organize and reach a consensus within the Democratic Party. That's harder."

SHOULD Clinton win a second term, an important variable will be the overall objective he sets for the next four years, Professor Peters argues. If he tries to carve his place in history by reinventing the Democratic Party or reaching a long-term solution to the national budget problem, he will have to reside in the center, and a GOP Congress would probably provide a better arrangement.

As the last year has shown, Clinton was highly successful playing the hard right and hard left off each other.

But if the president pursues another ambitious legislative agenda, such as a new attempt to overhaul health care, Peters says, he'll probably have to move toward the left, and having his own party in control on Capitol Hill could be an advantage.

"No matter which side wins, it will win by a narrow margin," Professor Pitney says. "If the GOP is in control, the gloating is over. If the Democrats are in control, there could be bitter fights before Congress reaches a consensus."

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