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GOP Has Edge but Congressional Cliffhanger Lingers

Republicans will retain control of the House, but there could be a 50-50 split in the Senate.


WASHINGTON — In a political drama still unfolding, Republicans barely extended their six-year grip on Congress and faced a possible first-ever 50-50 split in the Senate as close vote counts gave Democrats key gains Wednesday.

The unresolved presidential election and a close Senate race in Washington state added to the suspense and spawned talk about various political scenarios on Capitol Hill--talk that resembled speculation over playoff possibilities at the end of football season.

In the battle for the House, California stood out as the great exception to the House GOP's solid performance across the nation. Democrats expected to pick up an eye-popping five Republican seats in the state, knocking off three GOP incumbents and losing none of their own. But those gains were partly offset by losses elsewhere, as two Democratic incumbents were unexpectedly toppled in Minnesota and Connecticut. House Democratic leaders conceded that they would not be able to claim the prize they had worked to achieve for two years: the speakership.

On the other side of the Capitol, Democrats exulted in returns that will narrow the GOP Senate majority, 54 to 46 in the current Congress. With the count now at 50 to 49, they could make it 50-50 if Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) loses to Democrat Maria Cantwell in an undecided race. Gorton held a slim lead, but an estimated 650,000 absentee ballots have yet to be counted. Washington voters were required to postmark their ballots by Tuesday evening, but many ballots might not be received until today.

Whatever happens, Republicans will control the Senate at the outset. If George W. Bush is elected president, an evenly divided Senate would open the door for Dick Cheney, as the GOP vice president, to cast tie-breaking votes through the constitutional power of that office.

On the other hand, a victory by Al Gore would allow Connecticut's GOP governor to appoint a Republican senator to fill the vacancy created by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's resignation to become vice president. That would ensure a 51-seat Republican majority.

Returns Wednesday added Sens. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) and John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) to the list of incumbent casualties that included Virginia Democrat Charles S. Robb and Republicans William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware and Rod Grams of Minnesota. Ashcroft, outpolled by the late Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, conceded defeat Wednesday. That cleared the way for Carnahan's widow, Jean, to be named by the state's acting Democratic governor to fill the vacancy. Ashcroft and GOP leaders said that they would not challenge her appointment.

In the next Congress, control of the Senate also could hinge on nonpolitical factors, such as members' health. The Senate's senior member, 97-year-old Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, has been hospitalized several times in recent years.

Republicans savored the possibility of gaining control of both houses of Congress and the White House for the first time since 1954, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and City Hall was the tallest building in Los Angeles. Democrats regained the majority in the next Congress.

Parties Pledge Bipartisanship

For the first time since the 1920s, Republicans will hold majorities in the House and Senate for a fourth consecutive Congress. Hillary Rodham Clinton, elected to the Senate as a New York Democrat, will become not only the first presidential wife to serve in Congress but will sit alongside senators who presided over the impeachment trial of her husband less than two years ago.

And for the first time, the number of female senators climbed into double digits, from the current nine to at least 11. Women posted gains in the House too.

Standing alongside a sign with a big No. 50, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said at a Capitol Hill news conference: "The only way we're going to accomplish anything as a country is to work in a bipartisan manner."

But Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told reporters in Washington: "We will be in the majority, and that is not in doubt. But obviously, the closer you get, the more it requires cooperation." Noting that it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster, he added that he expects little change in the gridlock that has prevailed on "any cause that is remotely controversial."

Added John J. Pitney Jr., an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College: "There will be a lot of talk about working together. But, when the margin is this close, very soon the parties will gear up for the [election] battle of 2002 and that will make bipartisanship very difficult."

In the House, Democrats apparently cut slightly into the current 222-209 GOP majority but fell short of picking up the seven seats they needed to recapture the majority they lost in 1994.

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