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Control of Next House: a Race Too Close to Call

Congress: Lawmakers are locked in the tightest contest in five decades. Legislative maneuvers tied to the budget impasse keep them in Washington.


WASHINGTON — As the year's congressional session slowly winds down, House members will be leaving Washington in a rare state of uncertainty: No one knows for sure who will run the show when they come back after the Nov. 7 election.

Democrats and Republicans are locked in the closest contest for control of the House of Representatives in 50 years. And the outcome appears to hinge on factors with little in common but their unpredictability. Issues as parochial as irregularities in a House Republican's financial dealings or a Democratic candidate's ties to a controversial pharmaceutical company could determine some races. Others may be shaped by trends in the breathtakingly tight presidential race.

Party operatives on both sides, not surprisingly, voice optimism that their side will prevail. But nonpartisan analysts estimate the new House could be controlled by as little as a one- or two-vote margin--and they are unsure which way the scale will tip. Nail biting is the order of the day.

"Our leadership is optimistic and upbeat but the truth is, nobody really knows," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.).

Against that backdrop, the budget impasse that has kept Congress from ending this year's session continued Sunday. Congress passed another one-day extension of stopgap funding to keep the government running while negotiators tried to narrow their many remaining differences with the White House on issues of education, immigration and tax policy. But Republicans said they were prepared to fight with President Clinton until the eve of the election--"if that's what it takes," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said on ABC-TV's "This Week."

In one sign of progress, congressional and White House negotiators early this morning said they were near agreement on a $112-billion spending bill for education and other social programs. They were still working out final details on the compromise--which would provide money Clinton has sought for new school construction and hiring more teachers.

One reason things are moving so slowly is because both sides are cautiously assessing the impact of each legislative maneuver on the battle for control of the House.

That battle is being fought primarily in a handful of districts around the country where House members are retiring or pursuing higher office, leaving open seats that traditionally produce the most competitive elections. That battleground is heavily tilted in the Democrats' favor because far more Republican seats have opened up than Democratic ones. The issues dominating the campaign--education, health, Social Security--also play to Democrats' strength. And Democrats have marshaled a campaign war chest that has erased the GOP's traditional financial advantage.

Still, Republicans have held their own. In recent weeks, the GOP has managed to improve its position in a number of key races--in Florida, Missouri and Montana to name a few--to the point that some analysts say it's less likely than it was a few months ago that Republicans will be dumped from power.

"Democrats' mood ought to reflect growing concern about their ability" to win control, said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst of congressional elections. He predicts Democrats will gain some seats--but he is unsure whether it will be enough to overcome the GOP's current seven-seat majority.

"We feel optimistic we can take it back, but it's going to be closer than we had hoped," acknowledged Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's obviously frustrating."

The stakes are particularly high for Democrats because if they do not win this year, many analysts say, their chances of winning the House in 2002 will be diminished. By then, district lines will have been redrawn--in many states by legislatures run by Republicans. And there may be a rash of retirements among House Democrats--including many who had been persuaded to postpone retirement plans for the sake of the 2000 fight.

"We don't have a better scenario than we do now, and we won't in 2002," Kennedy said.

While the stakes in the House elections are high, the battleground is small because very few incumbents are facing a real fight. Four of them happen to be in California: GOP Reps. James E. Rogan of Glendale, Steven T. Kuykendall of Rancho Palos Verdes and Brian P. Bilbray of San Diego face stiff challenges from Democrats; Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (D-Visalia) is a top Republican target. But most incumbents in California and elsewhere are coasting to victory.

The cloud of uncertainty about which party will win the House is unusual in a town where political professionals typically know who will control both chambers of Congress before the first vote is cast. For 40 years, the Democrats controlled the House, often by such commanding majorities that a Republican majority was unthinkable.

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