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Divided Government to Continue in Washington

Congress: Several Republican freshmen fall but party is expected to keep control of House with reduced majority.

November 06, 1996|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Voters guaranteed the nation at least two more years of divided government Tuesday as they gave Republicans an expanded majority in the Senate and appeared to put the party on track to maintain control of the House as well.

Numerous House races remained too close to call late Tuesday night, but officials of both parties said Republicans seemed to be snatching enough open seats from Democrats in the South and elsewhere to offset the defeats of several vulnerable Republican freshmen, particularly in the Northeast. The result seemed almost certain to allow Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to maintain his job as speaker of the House, but with a reduced majority.

"It looks right now we're certain to keep control of the U.S. Congress," said Gingrich, who handily won his own bid for reelection in his suburban Atlanta district.

The victory marks the first time since the 1920s that the GOP won two back-to-back congressional elections.

The party's congressional campaign chief, Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), predicted Tuesday night that Republicans would lose roughly a dozen incumbents while defeating a few Democrats, for a net loss of roughly eight seats. Democrats would have needed to pick up 19 seats for a majority.

"This cements the Republican majority right into the next century," he said. And he blamed party standard-bearer Bob Dole for congressional losses in the Northeast. "We lost seats in the Northeast because the presidential race was nonexistent" in the region, he complained.

Democratic vote-counters offered a similar assessment.

In partial returns so far, Democrats were taking a toll on Republican incumbents, particularly in the Northeast, but that Republicans were stemming their losses by picking up Democratic open seats, particularly in the South. That marked a significant regional shift in keeping with the national trend of the last generation, which has seen the GOP base migrate from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt.

In the Senate, Republicans picked up enough Democratic seats and held on to enough of their own to expand their majority by at least one seat. A final race, in Oregon, may not be known until as late as Friday, when all absentee ballots are counted, election officials said.

The GOP cemented its power base by picking up seats vacated by retirements of Democrats in Alabama, Arkansas and Nebraska.

Political Recovery

The results signaled a remarkable political recovery for a party that hit a public opinion nadir a year ago when budget battles with President Clinton shut down the government--and the GOP bore the brunt of the public's wrath.

It would also set the stage for two more years of potential confrontation between President Clinton and congressional Republicans. Although that notion was once synonymous with gridlock, Clinton and the Republicans in the last few months showed they could meet each other halfway and produce legislation on such popular issues as welfare reform and improving access to health insurance.

Indeed, some Clinton advisors had argued earlier this year that a Congress with a reduced Republican majority might be easier for the president to work with than a new, more liberal Democratic majority. But Republicans also will surely continue dogging Clinton with their power to conduct investigations into Whitewater, questionable campaign contributions and other ethical controversies surrounding the administration.

Earlier this year, Republicans had been subjected to a blistering campaign of negative advertising against vulnerable freshmen by the AFL-CIO and other Democratic allies.

Turning the Tide

Republicans began to turn the tide in August, when the GOP dropped its trademark take-no-prisoners, confrontational strategy and began compromising with Clinton to produce major laws on such popular issues as welfare reform and expanding access to health insurance.

"The dominant image before August was that the Republican Congress was both ineffective and threatening," said one Democratic strategist who asked not to be named. "That image was changed in a fundamental way in August."

In the final weeks of the campaign, the GOP and its candidates began launching an aggressive counterattack that may have helped stem the tide against them.

Democrats said their chances in some House and Senate races may also have been hurt by disclosures about questionable foreign contributions to their party and by the fact that support for Clinton seemed to erode in the waning days of the campaign.

"Clinton is not finishing with a big strong kick," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "He's not finishing on a high."

Heading into the election, Republicans enjoyed a 53-47 majority in the Senate. Democrats would have needed a net gain of three seats to secure a tie, which would be broken in their favor by Vice President Gore--and four seats for outright control.

In the House, Republicans entered election day with a 235-198 majority (with two vacancies).

Some Incumbents Fall

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