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GOP Tidal Wave: Dazed Looks Everywhere : Elections: For Democrats, it's a trail of possibly disrupted careers. For Republicans, it's a shocking recognition that they're now in charge.


WASHINGTON — Flags were at half-staff over the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in memory of retiring Rep. Dean A. Gallo (R-N.J.), who died over the weekend, but stunned Republican and Democratic congressional staff members on Capitol Hill saw the flag instead as a fitting symbol for a world turned upside down.

"I was in San Francisco during the earthquake and I see the same look on the faces of Democratic staffers today that I saw on people walking around San Francisco back then," said Republican aide Tom Hoope. "And even for Republican staffers, it's elation, pure unbridled joy--but mostly it's disbelief."

The day after Tuesday's revolutionary election, the overwhelming emotion of Democrats, Republicans and even voters in Washington and around the nation seemed to be a sense of genuine astonishment.

Everywhere it struck, the Republican storm across the nation left deeply personal imprints on Democrats and Republicans alike. A trail of possibly disrupted Democratic careers has been left in the storm's wake, while suddenly ascendant Republicans found themselves Wednesday morning facing the sobering recognition that they will be in charge in both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

"Washington is a company town and this is the equivalent of Boeing closing down in Seattle," observed Republican consultant David Keene.

Indeed, on Capitol Hill, thousands of congressional staff members faced the prospect of getting thrown out of once-secure committee jobs for the first time in more than a generation, forcing many to join what one dubbed the "U-Hall frequent movers club."

"Depression hasn't set in yet. Right now, it's shock," noted Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento). "All I know is that I got up this morning and I started getting ready for work and I stopped and said to myself: 'What's the rush? We don't control things anymore.' "

"I always looked at House Republicans in the minority and said to myself, I never want to be like that," added Matsui. "And now I am."

Even the prime beneficiaries of Tuesday's Republican tidal wave still seemed to be groping to come to terms with the consequences of an election that turned conventional wisdom on its ear and which left some of America's mightiest politicians on the outside looking in.

As he bounced from one television appearance to another, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), for example, had the dazed look of a man who had either just been hit over the head with a 2-by-4--or who was soon to become Speaker of the House and second in line of succession to the Presidency.

Overnight, Gingrich, the bomb-thrower, seemed transformed and was sounding, well, statesmanlike. On Wednesday, the normally combative Gingrich--after just 90 minutes of sleep--had kind words for President Clinton and Churchillian words of reconciliation for politicians of all stripes.

In fact, outside of a rally in his home district of Cobb County, Ga., Wednesday, Gingrich, whose movements were suddenly being closely followed by the national press corps, acknowledged that he was taken aback by the size of the Republican victory Tuesday. Indeed, the tidal wave seemed to have a profound effect on him. With an air of wonderment, the newly powerful Gingrich talked of his plans to meet with Clinton and of how he is now assuming the sobering responsibilities of spokesman for the whole House.

Throughout Wednesday, Gingrich's rhetoric was almost unrecognizable--a politician who has long counseled colleagues to use nastiness to their advantage, urged that "civility is at heart of democracy."

Yet Gingrich was hardly alone. Wednesday morning, Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour seemed to be biting his tongue, explaining that his wife had warned him "not to gloat." And Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), poised to become Senate majority leader, seemed to recognize that Republicans are riding to power on the back of an angry electorate and that, if they do not deliver, they could be its next prey.

"It's been an historic 24 hours. Congress is under new management," said Dole. "But if we are going to make this work, we have got to work together. And if we don't, the voters will cancel our lease and we'll get kicked out for a long time again."

Clearly, on a human level, the biggest impact of Tuesday's vote is being felt among powerful Democratic committee chairmen and their staffs. Men like Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, suddenly will go from being in charge of an empire that includes 300 staff members to having nothing more than a small congressional district office.

"How does a guy like John Dingell deal with this?" wondered Matsui. "I really don't know. I've already heard rumors that some Democrats will resign after they are sworn in, because they just won't be able to take it."

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