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The Control of Congress May Be Cliffhanger

Close races and slim majorities on Capitol Hill could spur struggles for Senate, House leadership reminiscent of 2000 vote nail-biter.

October 22, 2002|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Two years after a vote-counting dispute delayed the outcome of the presidential election, this year's battle for control of Congress is so close that it, too, could run deep into overtime.

Several scenarios could lead to post-election day suspense in the House and Senate.

If Republicans lose a handful of House seats on Nov. 5, the fate of their slim majority could come down to a special election in Hawaii, a party-switching drama in Texas or a runoff election in Louisiana on Dec. 7.

If Democrats and Republicans fight to a draw in the Senate, the winner in that chamber also could depend on a Louisiana showdown.

Yet another possibility: Republicans could erase, at least temporarily, the current one-seat Democratic majority in the Senate if their candidate in Missouri ousts Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan. The term for Carnahan, who was appointed to replace her deceased husband, is due to expire immediately after the election, and the winner could be sworn in days later.

If it is Republican Jim Talent -- and the race is a tossup -- control of the Senate would flip for the second time in this Congress and the GOP would be in the majority when lawmakers gather in mid-November for a lame-duck session.

Then, astoundingly, it could switch again when the new Congress convenes in January if other Democratic Senate candidates do well on Nov. 5.

Got it straight? If not, you're not alone. Some of the sharpest strategists on Capitol Hill didn't think through the full implications of a Talent victory until a few weeks ago.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) acknowledged the other day that he might have to cede his post to the Republican leader, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, for a few weeks if Carnahan loses. But naturally, he insisted she would probably win.

All of this potential confusion reflects a deep, stubborn partisan split in America that has left both houses of Congress with their slimmest majorities in decades -- and with neither party having a clear edge heading into the elections.

"You just have an extremely competitive situation," said Larry J. Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "You still have the possibility of a hung election. It is not a probability, but it is a serious possibility."

The chances of a cliffhanger election in 2002 are rooted in the election of 2000. That year, as Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore for the presidency on the strength of a 537-vote triumph in Florida, several elections in both houses of Congress also were nail-biters.

The Senate was split 50-50 between the two major parties after Democrat Maria Cantwell ousted GOP incumbent Slade Gorton in Washington state in a contest whose outcome was not official until weeks afterward.

Republicans, through the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Dick Cheney, held a tenuous grip on the chamber through May 2001. But Democrats seized power after Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont quit the Republican Party to become an independent.

In the House, Republicans held power after the 2000 vote in part through winning a handful of agonizingly close contests. In Michigan and Minnesota, two GOP candidates triumphed by fewer than 200 votes each.

The Republican majority now stands at 223 seats, with Democrats holding 208. Three seats formerly held by Democrats are vacant because of a resignation (Tony P. Hall of Ohio), an expulsion (James A. Traficant of Ohio) and a death (Patsy T. Mink of Hawaii). One member of the House, independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont, usually votes with the Democrats and would be counted as a vote for a Democratic speaker.

A feverish game of intrigue over who becomes the next House speaker in the 108th Congress would begin if the Nov. 5 elections leave either party at or near the magic number needed for a majority: 218.

Suppose Democrats claim 217 seats after election night. They still would have a shot at toppling the GOP if they have managed to force a runoff in Louisiana's 5th Congressional District, which is being vacated by a Republican incumbent running for the Senate.

Louisiana law allows multiple candidates, regardless of party affiliation, to seek office. And the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, meet in a runoff if no one captures more than 50% of the vote.

Strategists in both parties say Democrat Rodney Alexander has a good chance of landing in a runoff in the 5th District against one of three Republicans seeking the seat. Whoever emerges as the Republican candidate in a runoff would probably be favored, but suppose Alexander won in an upset. Democratic House majority, right? Not necessarily. Republicans could have at least two counter-moves.

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