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Liberals in Line to Run House if Power Switches

Politics: Many chairmen- in-waiting aren't moderate 'new Democrats,' a fact GOP hopes to use to its advantage.


WASHINGTON — One is a hero of environmental activists. Another routinely gets a 100% rating from labor unions. And more than half of them voted against President Clinton's landmark 1996 law to end welfare as we know it.

Such is the political profile of some of the Democrats who will be running the show if their party wins control of the House on election day. From Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, a leading advocate of expanding access to health care, to Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, a strong supporter of strict gun-control laws, the senior Democrats in line to become committee chairmen include some of Congress' most liberal members.

The reason: Power on Capitol Hill is distributed according to seniority, and the Democrats who have been around the longest come from the safest, and generally more liberal, Democratic districts.

The result: Many of the House's chairmen-in-waiting are cut from a different political cloth than the more moderate mantle many Democrats, including presidential nominee Al Gore, are wearing in this year's campaign.

Republicans are trying to make political hay out of that contrast. They are spotlighting the would-be chairmen to argue that a Democratic House would lurch to the left--even though a growing number of moderate "new Democrats" have been elected in recent years.

"Most of these guys owe their election and career to Big Labor," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "The 'new Democrats' are out there, but when it comes to making policy and deciding what bills come to the floor, they are out of power."

Democrats reject Davis' argument as an ideological scare tactic that exaggerates how liberal a Democratic House would be. They say that six humbling years in the minority--and the likelihood that they would govern with only a wafer-thin majority--means that even their party's liberal lions will rule like pragmatic lambs.

"The Democratic caucus is a different one than it was six years ago," said Erik Smith, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's moved to the middle. It's got leaders who are chastened by the turn of events six years ago. If the future Democratic majority doesn't govern from the middle, it won't be sustainable."

Still, some moderate Democrats are worried that the differences between the older, more liberal members and the growing younger generation of moderates will reopen divisions within the party that have been largely submerged since the 1994 election.

"There's no question you could see a generation gap," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento). "The real problem is whether the left wing of our caucus is going to demand that the leadership move left."

Rep. Gephardt Would Take Speaker's Job

If Democrats win Congress, the most visible change of leadership will be in the speaker's office, where the gavel would pass from J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who is now House minority leader.

The change of control of congressional committees will be less prominent but of great consequence because committee chairmen wield enormous legislative influence in Congress. They help set the party's legislative agenda and have a strong hand in writing the crucial details of bills.

All that power is a big part of the prize that will be awarded to whichever party wins control of the House on Nov. 7. Republicans' control is now so tenuous that Democrats need to win only seven seats to gain a majority. When voters cast their ballots, it will affect not only who represents their home districts but also which party will grab the levers of committee power.

A Democratic takeover could bring new benefits to California, which has at least three Democrats in line to be chairmen: Waxman is in line to preside over the Committee on Government Reform, an oversight panel that reviews programs throughout the federal government. Rep. Julian C. Dixon of Los Angeles, a longtime Waxman ally, likely would take over the Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees authorization of U.S. intelligence-related activities. And George Miller of Martinez would be expected to head the Committee on Education and the Workforce, which deals with school aid and labor law.

In the current GOP-controlled Congress, Californians chair two committees (and only one exercises significant legislative clout). Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) heads the Rules Committee, which plays a key role by setting the terms of floor debate on bills. Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield) is chairman of the House Administration Committee, which mainly handles routine housekeeping matters, such as assignment of office space.

Conservatives Could Get 3 Chairmanships

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