GOP gains, but Congress still riven
Republicans expand their margin of control, even as bitter fights over judiciary and spending remain.
WASHINGTON — Republicans have strengthened their control of Congress, but that won't necessarily mean smooth sailing for the agenda of Bush and the GOP.
The Senate - described by House Republicans as the place where good bills go to die - will now be more open to passing long-stalled bills on energy and highways. New tax cuts look more likely. Republicans will feel emboldened on everything from cutting regulation to stepping up the war on terror.
At the same time, however, Tuesday's tide of victory for the GOP won't be enough to forestall bitter battles over court nominees. The party still lacks the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster by Democrats on that and other issues. And rifts among Republican lawmakers - and between them and the White House - are likely to widen in a second Bush term.
Those are among the conclusions rippling through Washington after Republicans won all but one of nine key races in the Senate, including all five open seats in the South. The vote leaves Democrats in disarray, having lost Senate minority leader Tom Daschle in a race that turned on his role in obstructing the Bush agenda.
"It may have been a narrow victory for Bush nationally, but everyone in these key Senate races benefited from his coattails," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Now, Republicans are bound to be very aggressive in pushing their agenda."
House leaders claimed a historic win. "For the first time, a GOP majority increased seats in the House in two consecutive [election] cycles," says party spokesman Carl Forti.
House majority leader Tom DeLay claimed a mandate for change. "The American people have spoken tonight," he said in a statement. "[It's] time to start thinking beyond just growing the economy, and about fundamentally strengthening it by ridding our economy of over-taxation, over-regulation, and over-litigation that have hamstrung it for decades."
But along with a higher GOP head count in the House and Senate, Republicans appear if anything more divided.
For one thing, the head count leaves a handful of GOP moderates, such as Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, still in a position to broker whatever legislation moves to the floor of the Senate.
The new GOP freshman class in the Senate also includes conservatives with strong ideological credentials, such as Reps. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and David Vitter of Louisiana, and, especially, former Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
As an outspoken, self-term-limited member of the insurgent House "Class of '94," Dr. Coburn has already proved he can be as formidable an opponent to the GOP leadership as the Democrats when he believes conservative principles are at stake. When GOP leaders abandoned term limits or perpetuated pork-barrel spending, he called them hypocrites. "By the end of my time in Congress, careerism had trumped fiscal conservatism," he writes in his 2003 book, "Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders Into Insiders."
No surprise, then, that the White House did not initially back his candidacy. But conservative groups did and bankrolled his run.
A key test of the new balance on Capitol Hill will be judicial nominations, which become even more high-profile if two or three vacancies open on the Supreme Court. Some conservatives worry that with Senator Specter as the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, conservative nominees will still have a rough time getting to a vote, apart from the issue of Democratic filibusters.
"Senator Specter promised during his campaign that no pro-life justices would be confirmed by his committee. The question I have is whether Republicans can increase their majority on that committee by enough to outvote the chairman," says Paul Weyrich, a longtime conservative activist and chairman of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation.
Any move to push a hard-right agenda in the Senate - on issues from the judiciary to budgets - could prompt resistance from within the Republican caucus, as well as from the Democrats. "The moderate wing of the Republican party may be increasingly uncomfortable with the issues that these new, very conservative senators will be raising. It could even drive a couple of them out of the party," says Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University.
At press time, Republicans had won 54 of the Senate's 100 seats, and an apparent edge-out in Alaska could boost their majority to 55. In Alaska, GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski is leading former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles.
On the House side, Republicans have won 229 seats, Democrats 200, with 1 independent who votes with Democrats. Two House races face runoffs, and three other seats remained undecided.