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For Both Parties, a Time to Dream of What Could Be

Republicans hope for undivided control of Congress. Democrats want to retake the House. Each has an ambitious agenda.

October 30, 2002|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON--With midterm elections less than a week away, the nation's capital is a city of dreamers.

Republicans yearn to recover what they suddenly lost last year when a single senator quit the party: undivided control of Congress, to complement the GOP's hold on the White House.

Democrats, with a tenuous grip on the Senate, hope to overcome difficult odds and capture the House for the first time in eight years.

Whichever party triumphs in the House and Senate elections, their majority margins are likely to be narrow, but the policy consequences will be huge. A Republican Congress would mobilize behind President Bush's conservative agenda if he seeks reelection in 2004. A Democratic Congress would unleash liberal legislative voices stymied for eight years and could throw Bush onto the defensive.

A divided Congress presumably would mean further stalemate that would leave both parties pointing fingers of blame and major disputes unresolved. Among them: Should Congress extend, accelerate or freeze tax cuts scheduled to expire in eight years? Should Social Security be overhauled? How much should the government prod domestic energy production? To what extent should the government help lower prescription drug prices or guarantee new rights to medical patients? Should the rules for immigration change?

If Republicans control both chambers, they will be able to pick up where they left off when Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont became an independent and tipped the Senate into Democratic hands.

That would mean a push to make permanent, or even accelerate, parts of the $1.35-trillion tax cut enacted last year during the four months when the GOP controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Currently, the tax cut is to expire at the end of 2010.

Republicans want to make permanent what is now a temporary repeal of the estate tax--an idea that appeals to some centrist Democrats--and lock in reductions in individual income tax rates, cuts for married couples and various education-related and retirement-savings tax breaks.

Lately, Republicans have also talked about reducing taxes for stockholders whose portfolios have been battered by the market's plunge.

Thomas E. Mann, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, calls tax policy "a big mega-question" facing the next Congress.

A Republican Congress also would give new momentum to stalled Bush initiatives to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, create a Department of Homeland Security with strong management authority and bolster government cooperation with faith-based charities.

A Republican Senate, in particular, would give the administration enormous leverage on judicial and executive nominations. Stalled Bush picks for the federal bench--including two rejected this year by the Democratic-led Judiciary Committee--would get new life.

Ideological battles expected over Supreme Court vacancies in the second half of Bush's term also would be deeply influenced. The nine-member high court would seem due for a change; the last justice confirmed was Stephen G. Breyer in 1994.

People for the American Way, a liberal group that has opposed Bush's judicial nominations, contends that a GOP-led Senate "could guarantee a Supreme Court controlled by the far right for decades."

While Democrats and their allies raise such alarms about the prospect of GOP dominance in Washington, Republicans deride the status quo -- a Congress so deadlocked that it has failed this year to pass a federal budget.

"Give us a chance," said Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the anticipated majority leader in a GOP Senate. "Let us have the Congress and the presidency working together and see if we can produce."

Lott said his first move would be to call for votes on more than 80 stalled nominations, including the nomination of a judge from his home state to an appellate court. That nominee, Judge Charles Pickering, was rejected by Senate Judiciary Democrats.

Despite a closing campaign blitz by Bush himself, it is entirely possible that voters will keep Congress just as it is. It is also conceivable that Republicans could lose their slim House majority. The GOP now holds 223 of 435 House seats; meaning a loss of just six seats would cost the party its majority.

If Democrats gain the House--no matter who wins the Senate--they would be able to move onto the legislative offensive with a rap of the speaker's gavel.

Leading House Democrats envision a new push to raise the minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits, enforce environmental regulations, reform pension systems and stimulate the economy through a one-time, $200-billion package of spending and tax cuts for working-class families and businesses.

They also have proposed an amnesty program for illegal immigrants who have lived for some years in the United States, held jobs and passed a background check.

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