Democrats hope for boost from impeachment fallout

Public backlash and retirement of Republicans may help party retake House in 2000 election.

After the November elections, when the Democrats defied history by nearly retaking control of the US House of Representatives, the talk immediately turned to 2000.

Without skipping a beat, the party began plotting strategy over how to finish the job and reclaim the chamber they lost in 1994 after 40 straight years of control. Targeted seats are identified, candidate recruitment has begun.

House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri is also now effectively running the party's congressional campaign committee, a sign that he may have his sights more on becoming Speaker of the House than president. A top Gephardt staffer is the committee's new executive director. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) of Rhode Island, the committee's new chairman, is focusing on fund-raising.

On top of all that, the GOP has handed the Democrats a campaign issue they believe could tip some seats their way in 2000: the impeachment of President Clinton, a move the majority of the public opposed.

"My guess is the day after the 2000 elections, we'll be able to point to two or three Republican incumbents and say they probably lost because of impeachment," says Charles Cook, a nonpartisan expert on congressional races. "Some are saying dozens, some are saying none. They're both wrong."

After all the hoopla over the first presidential impeachment in 130 years, two or three seats out of 435 may not sound like much. But in the context of the 2000 race for the House, that could mean a lot. To start, the Republicans' margin of control is already wafer-thin, just six seats, so every seat that changes hands is crucial.

An additional key factor - some Republicans' self-imposed term limits - gives another boost to Democrats' prospects, and means the two parties effectively begin the race dead even.

Early retirement for GOP members

In 2000, the Republicans' large class of 1994 reaches the six-year mark, the point at which some have promised to retire. In addition, the House GOP rules now state that committee chairs must give up their chairmanships after six years. That doesn't mean they have to leave Congress. But some will anyway, rather than return to the back bench. Rep. Bill Archer (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has already announced he'll retire after the next term.

Retirements mean open seats, which have a greater chance of going to the opposition party than do incumbent-held seats.

So how will Mr. Clinton's impeachment factor into the race for control of the House? Most members' seats in Washington are safe. The big question mark hangs over the moderate Republicans, who appeared to be in a no-win position over impeachment. A vote for impeachment risked alienating moderate and swing voters. A vote against risked angering base Republican voters and inviting a challenge in the primary.

Most moderate Republicans ended up voting with their party. For some - especially those who represent districts that lean Democratic, such as Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa - that decision could inspire a strong Democratic challenge in 2000.

On the flip side sit the five Republicans who voted against impeachment. For Rep. Constance Morella (R) of Maryland, that was the safe vote, since her district leans Democratic. But the others better watch their backs, says Jay Severin, a GOP consultant based in New York.

"I'm not saying they're toast, but they've bought themselves problems," says Mr. Severin. "The odds are they will confront primary challenges in the next election."

No incumbent likes a primary opponent, because it softens him or her up for the general election and siphons away resources. Even before the impeachment vote, Severin says he got two phone calls from Republicans thinking of challenging Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, one of the anti-impeachment Republicans. A GOP candidate has already announced against Rep. Amo Houghton, another New York anti-impeachment Republican.

Election still a long way off

Severin says it's too soon to predict how impeachment will play in 2000. Rarely does an issue have legs that can last nearly two years. But with impeachment, not an everyday legislative event, predictions are especially risky. "Who knows how this will mutate in the Senate?" he says. "Of course, it's possible that this will live on, Dracula-like, stalking the earth."

For Democrats, who believe for now that the impeachment works in their favor, the question is how to keep the issue alive. Sooner or later, the new Congress and its new Republican leaders will change the subject. So Democrats will have to figure out ways to bring it up as they push their issues.

"I don't think they can complain about impeachment per se for the next 1-1/2 years," says political analyst Stu Rothenberg.

"The Democrats ought to push their agenda, even if they know the Republicans don't want it, and hope that the Republicans will be seen as the party that's against stuff, against health-care reform, education, etc. Then they can remind voters about impeachment."

Ironically, the impeachment could give both parties an extra incentive to make legislative accomplishments during the next Congress, analysts say. The Republicans will need to show they can do something besides impeach the president. The Democrats, eager to retake the House (the Senate is a longer shot) and keep the presidency will also want to bring something positive to the voters.

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