Gridlock Looks Good in 107th Congress


Two weeks after the election Republican leaders were waiting with the rest of us to see if the 107th Congress next year would be tangling with Al Gore or trying to finesse their conservative wish list to George W. Bush's obliging pen.

Democrats made just enough gains in Congress to put themselves in a position to stop the worst bills and perhaps force some bipartisan consideration -- particularly in the Senate. The big disappointment was the Democrats' failure to retake the House. They needed seven seats to win a majority. But as 98% of incumbents were re-elected, the D's showed a net gain of only two, with two more races still undecided two weeks after the election.

In a year when the Democrats had fundraising parity with the Republicans, there was some criticism that if Al Gore had not stopped President Bill Clinton from campaigning for congressional candidates in many of the battleground states the D's might have won the House. Gore kept Clinton off the campaign trail for fear that he might distract from the vice president's message. Green congressional challengers also were blamed when a Democrat lost a close race for an open seat in New Jersey and Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., had to eke out a 553-vote recount victory, but Nader supporters helped other Democrats win House races, particularly in California and Washington. Greens also helped Democrat Maria Cantwell upset longtime Sen. Slade Gorton in Washington State, if her 1,780-vote winning margin holds up in a recount.

In the House the majority rules in a much more absolute sense than it does in the Senate, where controversial bills need the support of 60 senators to pass. The gain of at least Senate seats, as the Republican majority was whittled to 50-49 pending resolution of the Washington race, puts the Democrats in a position to shut down that chamber if the Republicans try to push through major right-wing initiatives such as the privatization of Social Security. Even with Cantwell in the Senate, the GOP would remain in control, either through Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote or Joe Lieberman's successor picked by a Republican governor in Connecticut. However, with Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond both in poor health and Democratic governors in North and South Carolina ready to name their successors, the Senate balance could tip even before the 2002 elections, when 20 Republicans will be up for election.

Meanwhile there was hope that the close margin might make for bipartisanship, but that would be a big change for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and even moreso for House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, whose contingency plan to throw the election to the House if Gore ends up winning Florida was a sign of how far bipartisanship would get on Capitol Hill. If Bush survives, look for the demise of the estate tax and perhaps restructuring of the capital gains tax for which Republicans have lusted for years. R's also will do as much damage as they can with "riders" to must-pass appropriations bills, which are not as vulnerable to filibuster. And Bush can do much mischief through executive orders and appointments, of course.

If Gore wins -- well, you wouldn't think that relations could get any worse than they've been between Clinton and congressional Republicans, but they might start impeachment hearings on Gore before he even gets inaugurated.

In the Senate, Democrats ousted right-wing Republicans Rod Grams in Minnesota, Spencer Abraham in Michigan and John Ashcroft beaten by a dead man in Missouri, along with William J. Roth, a relative moderate ousted in Delaware. Three of the replacements are liberal Democrats -- Mark Dayton, a department store heir, in Minnesota; Debbie Stabenow, a congresswoman with a strong pro-labor and environment record, in Michigan, and Jean Carnahan, widow of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan in Missouri.

Thomas Carper, the moderate outgoing Governor of Delaware, beat 79-year-old Roth, who leaves his Finance Committee Chair to Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, who occasionally shows an independent streak. Democrats also gained an open seat in Florida when Bill Nelson, a moderate former congressman and insurance commissioner, beat US Rep. Bill McCollum, one of three managers of President Bill Clinton's impeachment who lost their jobs in the election. Democrats lost seats in Virginia and Nevada to conservatives George Allen and Jon Ensign but former Gov. Ben Nelson held onto Bob Kerrey's seat in Nebraska, Wall Street investment banker Jon Corzine bought the New Jersey seat given up by Frank Lautenberg and of course Hillary Rodham Clinton claimed the seat given up by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

In the House, D's could take some solace in the defeat of impeachment managers Jim Rogan in California and Jay Dickey in Arkansas. Progressives who lost included Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut but Lane Evans kept his seat in Illinois and progressive newcomers include Mike Honda from California's Silicon Valley, Hilda Solis of East Los Angeles and Steve Israel, who won Republican Rick Lazio's old Long Island seat.

In the statehouses, where redistricting will be carried out next year and will shape Congress for the next decade, Democrats ended up in control of 49 legislative chambers out of of 98, while Republicans control 45 and four chambers are tied. Democrats won control of the Colorado Senate and the Washington statehouse but they lost the Vermont House, as Republicans exploited the backlash against a new law allowing civil unions between gay and lesbian couples, to sweep out 13 Democratic incumbents. But Democratic Governor Howard Dean, who signed the civil union law, got the 50% he need to win re-election, even with Vermont Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina picking up 10% of the vote. Democrats kept control of the Senate. Bernie Sanders also won his sixth term as the only professed socialist in Congress.

Voters sent mixed messages in state initiatives. Campaign finance reform was defeated in three states, as Missouri and Oregon voters rejected Clean Campaign initiatives to provide public funding of state races. Similar initiatives had been approved in Maine, Massachusetts and Arizona as well as by the Vermont legislature in the past few years, but business lobbies were ready with well-financed counterattacks this year that raised fears about radical candidates public campaign financing might attract. Californians also approved Proposition 34, which was billed as campaign reform but actually waters down earlier reforms.

Voters registered their disapproval with the failed drug war as medical marijuana initiatives passed in Colorado and Nevada, joining seven other states who have passed similar measures. Oregon and Utah voted to reform draconian asset forfeiture laws and California voted to provide treatment instead of prison for first- and second-time drug offenders. An asset forfeiture and sentencing reform measure in Massachusetts failed. Voters were less interested in legalization of marijuana, voting it down in Alaska, although voters in Mendocino County, California, supported decriminalizing marijuana possession.

Public schoolteachers won a major victory when voters overwhelmingly rejected initiatives to provide vouchers for private school tuition in California and Michigan. California voters approved a measure that makes it easier to pass school bonds. Arizona voters, meanwhile, banned bilingual education. Among other initiatives, Colorado voters defeated an "informed consent" measure designed to steer women from having abortions, Arizona and Nebraska approved bans on same-sex marriages and civil unions while Maine voters narrowly defeated a measure to protect gays from discrimination. In Oregon a measure to outlaw "teaching" homosexuality failed and the state labor federation managed to defeat two antiunion "paycheck protection" measures while voters approved collective bargaining for home health workers.

One area for possible compromise in Congress was a proposal by the insurance industry, hospitals and health care advocates, announced Nov. 20, to seek expansion of Medicare and state-operated health insurance benefits to cover many of the nation's 43 million uninsured. The plan would fall short of single-payer universal health care, of course, but a universal plan didn't even pass muster in a Massachusetts initiative.

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