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GOP Sweep Would Transform Capitol Hill Politics--to a Point

Government: It would be the first Republican troika in nearly 50 years, but Senate Democrats would still wield a fair amount of control.


WASHINGTON — It is a potential political hat trick that has gone little-noticed: If George W. Bush becomes president and Republicans keep control of the House and Senate, it will be the first time since 1954 that the GOP has controlled both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.

Such a Republican sweep would transform the policy landscape. Big tax cuts would likely be the order of the day. Tighter limits on abortion could be expected. And numerous other GOP initiatives blocked by President Clinton over the last six years suddenly would have smooth sailing.

"Four years of Bush with a unified Republican government will bring as revolutionary a change in the economy as Ronald Reagan made in foreign policy," said Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who heads Americans for Tax Reform. "I'm very excited."

Both Congress and the presidency appear likely to be won by narrow margins, which could put a damper on the GOP's ability to turn the country sharply to the right. Still, even a narrow margin delivers enormous power to the victorious party: naming Cabinet officials, setting regulatory policy, appointing federal judges, chairing congressional committees that write the details of legislation, and setting the agenda for the House and Senate.

Centrist Politics Blur the Mandate

A unified Republican government would be a surprising election result, given that many polls show a majority of voters prefers divided government and analysts see no GOP groundswell like the tidal wave that gave the party control of Congress in the 1994 elections.

"You may have a majority, but there's no sense it will produce any kind of mandate," said Burdett Loomis, a political scientist with the University of Kansas.

The prospects and potential consequences of a GOP sweep have been largely obscured by a campaign in which Bush has kept his distance from congressional Republicans--and made his pitch to swing voters by arguing that he would provide bipartisan leadership that builds coalitions across party lines.

Congressional Republicans also have taken a different political tack than in 1994, when they sought power by calling for a dramatic turn to the right. This year, they have sought to blur the differences between the parties on issues such as Medicare prescription drug benefits, and they have promised that, even if they win the White House and Congress, they will move cautiously.

"America doesn't like change in sudden large doses," House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said. "If we were naive enough to think we could take this government in a large lurch to the right, it would be alarming to people."

But Democrats argue that the Bush agenda--big tax cuts, private investment of some Social Security taxes and overhaul of Medicare--is as fundamentally conservative as Newt Gingrich's 1994 "contract with America."

"From our point of view, it would be like going back to Gingrich Day One," said Gerald Shea, a top AFL-CIO official.

As giddy as Republicans may be at the prospect of a unified GOP government, there are potential pitfalls. It could reopen divisions within the party--between moderates and conservatives, between fighters and conciliators--that have been largely suppressed during the campaign. The two faces of the GOP have been on display this week: While Bush has been promising to end the bickering in Washington, the more confrontational conservatives who run Congress have helped turn the final negotiations on a new federal budget into a case study of partisan warfare.

Given this, a key question is which wing of the party would set the tone of an all-Republican government. Congressional Republicans have said throughout the campaign that they would defer to Bush. But they may not be able to resist pushing their own agenda, a problem Clinton encountered with his party in 1993 and 1994. A Democratic-controlled Congress killed or threw cold water on some of his maiden initiatives, including health care reform, an economic stimulus package and campaign finance reform.

Attention Paid to Tax and Social Issues

Many analysts have argued that Bush would have to govern from the center because the House and the Senate are expected to be even more closely divided between the parties than they are now. In the Senate in particular--where a minority of 40 can stall action with a filibuster--Democrats will wield enormous power to block GOP initiatives, even if they remain the minority.

That could frustrate some of Bush's most ambitious campaign promises, such as the overhaul of Social Security and Medicare. Armey himself cautioned that Social Security changes are "something we all want to take our time with." But there are many other issues on the Bush agenda with far brighter prospects in a Republican-controlled Congress.

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