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Senate Moves Toward Rare Even Split

Politics: Democrat claims victory in close Washington state race subject to automatic recount.


WASHINGTON — With the last of the votes finally counted, Democrat Maria Cantwell on Wednesday claimed victory in her Washington state U.S. Senate race over Republican incumbent Slade Gorton, putting the chamber closer to an unprecedented 50-50 partisan split next session.

The result was subject to an automatic recount next week that still could reverse Cantwell's winning margin, which was less than one-tenth of a percentage point. But even Gorton, while not yet conceding, said in a statement that he was "cautiously pessimistic" about the outcome. A Cantwell victory would culminate a year of major Democratic gains in the Senate and leave Republicans clinging to leadership in the chamber by the barest possible margin.

It also would mark a historic political advance for women; the next Senate would include 13 female senators, four more than now and the largest number ever. The advances by women would be the most significant since the 1992 elections produced what analysts termed the "year of the woman."

"We have won the election," Cantwell spokesman Ellis Conklin said Wednesday. "The mood here is one of exhaustion and euphoria."

Cantwell herself said only that she was "very pleased with the results" and was confident about the recount.

With all counties reporting, Cantwell held a lead of 1,953 votes. State officials reported that Cantwell had 1,199,260 votes to Gorton's 1,197,307.

Washington state's contest was the last of this year's 34 Senate races to be decided. Results were delayed by two factors: the excruciating tightness of the Cantwell-Gorton race and a state election system that produces a high rate of absentee voting.

The consequences of partisan parity in the Senate still are unclear. "I think we're going to be writing new precedents with a 50-50 Senate," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

Senate Democrats, out of power for six years and hungering for the gavel, already are researching how state legislatures have handled even-party splits. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the current minority leader, has seized on the possibility of a 50-50 split to argue for power-sharing, contending that committee slots and staffs should be divvied up equally between the parties.

Some Democrats also have suggested co-chairing committees and negotiating joint decisions on what legislation may be brought to a vote.

Aides to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) did not respond Wednesday afternoon to a request for comment.

Leading Republicans, however, seem skeptical of the Democratic suggestions. "It depends on what they mean by power-sharing," said Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), the assistant majority leader. "If it means co-chairing committees, no."

But Nickles conceded: "We'll need to be trying energetically to work in a more bipartisan way."

Cantwell, 42, is a former member of the House of Representatives who, after losing her seat in 1994, amassed a fortune as an executive of a dot-com business. She used that wealth to fund a heavy advertising campaign. Gorton, 72, is a three-term senator who has had significant clout within the chamber's GOP leadership.

Despite all the attention on Florida's unusual presidential recount, recounts are fairly common in congressional races across the country. But reversals of initial outcomes are rare.

A Gorton loss would make him the fifth GOP incumbent ousted in the Nov. 7 election--a stunning rebuke to the Republicans who have controlled the Senate since the 1994 elections. Only one Democratic incumbent lost.

Republicans hold a 54-46 majority in the current Senate.

Senate Democrats, already elated by previous gains, were ecstatic at the news of Cantwell's apparent win.

"This is a huge victory for us," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a member of the party's leadership. "We came within a whisker of regaining the majority."

Technically, Democrats could hold the majority in the new Senate for a few weeks. The Senate is to be sworn in Jan. 3 and would consist of 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans if Cantwell maintains her winning margin and Missouri's Democratic acting governor follows through on his pledge to appoint Democrat Jean Carnahan to fill a vacancy created when her late husband won on election day.

When the Senate is evenly split, the Constitution provides that the vice president, acting as presiding officer, may vote to break ties. And Democrat Al Gore will be vice president until his term ends Jan. 20.

But regardless of whether the Democratic or Republican ticket prevails in the disputed presidential election, the GOP would maintain tenuous control of the Senate once the new administration takes office.

If Republican George W. Bush takes office, the expected 50-50 Senate split would continue and Dick Cheney, as vice president, would be in position to break ties--handing the GOP the chamber's leadership.

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