GOP Candidates Warn Voters About Perils of One-Party Rule

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with Sen. Barack Obama, is expected to see her party make big gains in the House.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with Sen. Barack Obama, is expected to see her party make big gains in the House. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

On the defensive across the country and staring down an election that could see them reduced to an ineffective minority in the House and the Senate, congressional Republicans are offering a new argument to voters: the danger of single-party rule in the nation's capital.

Democrats are increasingly confident that Sen. Barack Obama will cruise to victory Nov. 4 and that his election will be accompanied by the biggest congressional majorities their party has enjoyed in decades, perhaps even a filibuster-proof 60-seat presence in the Senate. They have begun to outline an agenda that would center on stimulating the economy in the short term and then move quickly to beginning a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and focusing on domestic priorities such as overhauling the health-care system.

At the same time, party leaders are mindful of the dangers associated with one party controlling all levers of government, particularly given the monumental financial and international problems the next president and a new Congress will inherit.

"The larger the majority, the more likelihood that people think they can go off on their own. But being in the minority for 12 years was probably pretty good for us. We are a party much more aware of the necessity of unity," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) said.

In their eleventh-hour appeals for ticket-splitting, Republicans on the campaign trail are warning of Democratic overreach.

"If I lose this seat and one party has control across the board, then you'll see changes," Sen. Norm Coleman told voters last week in Minnesota, where he is trailing comedian-turned-politician Al Franken (D) in several polls. In North Carolina, imperiled Sen. Elizabeth Dole warns in a new television spot that Democrats will "get a blank check" if challenger Kay Hagan wins.

Poll numbers offer the GOP little comfort. The percentage of Americans saying they preferred that the same party control the White House and Congress has reached new highs in the Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll. On Thursday and Friday, the poll showed that 50 percent of likely voters wanted one party to control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and that 30 percent preferred split-party rule.

In the House, Democrats could gain 20 to 30 seats, boosting their majority to about 250, and they appear assured of a significant expansion of their Senate ranks.

Margins that wide should ease passage of big initiatives, but divisions within the party will not disappear with a victory on Nov. 4. In both chambers, liberal stalwarts are eager to turn on the spigot for increased spending on health-care, housing and education programs. A formidable faction of House fiscal conservatives is determined to block every new expenditure that is not offset by a corresponding cut.

Obama and other Democratic candidates have promised expanded health coverage, alternative-energy incentives and increased education funding. But turning each goal into law will require careful coalition building. On the energy front, Democrats are by no means unified on clean-coal technology, biofuels, nuclear technology and offshore oil drilling. With health care, there are different blocs that defend insurers, doctors, hospitals and so on.

There are plenty of ideological flash points in the mix. Labor groups want Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act to make union organizing easier. Hispanic groups want progress on immigration reform, including amnesty for illegal workers. The gay and lesbian community has long sought employment protections.

Democrats will face an early test when it takes up the children's health insurance bill vetoed by President Bush, as one of the new Congress's first tasks next year. The legislation would offer coverage to an additional 4 million children and is being portrayed by Democrats as a first step toward fulfilling Obama's pledge to provide universal health care.

Liberal Democrats are expected to expand the program further, to include children of illegal immigrants. But Hoyer said that would be asking for too much, financially and politically. "Philosophically, you want a healthy child sitting next to yours, but I think there will be reticence about taking that on," Hoyer said.

Powerful committee chairmen, frustrated by eight years of a Republican White House, present their own challenges. Rep. John D. Dingell (Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has a long history of resisting higher fuel-efficiency requirements for automakers. David R. Obey (Wis.) and Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), Appropriations Committee chairmen in the House and the Senate, respectively, are big spenders who can be impervious to pressure from leadership or even presidents. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (W.Va.) is a clean-coal proponent, like Obama, and is distrusted by liberals.

One-party government is almost as difficult to sustain as it is to establish, and both parties have forfeited strong majorities in recent years in astonishingly short order. And Democrats are keenly aware of their history.

In 1992, President Clinton won the White House and Democrats emerged with 57 Senate seats and 258 House seats -- not far off the possible outcome this year. Together they produced a stack of significant bills, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, gun-control legislation and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But Clinton pushed for too much, too quickly. Universal health care and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy allowing gays to serve in the military became euphemisms in Washington for overreaching. The result was the 1994 Republican Revolution, ending a Democratic grip on Congress that had lasted decades.

In 2004, Republicans widened their control of the House and the Senate, and Bush won a second term. Voters again revolted in two short years, handing the GOP a defeat as punishment for worsening conditions in Iraq, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina and a spate of ethics scandals.

"You might be able to do big things that have been blocked by divided government," said David Rohde, a Duke University political scientist. "But the potential pitfall is you can overreach, alienate the opposition party and alienate independents -- sowing the seeds of your own destruction."

Many Democratic lawmakers experienced both eras first-hand and say they are determined to avoid the same mistakes. They have vowed to set realistic goals and govern from the center, not the liberal fringe. They describe the party as more homogeneous than it was under Clinton and less ideological than the Republican-led Congress under Bush.

They also are counting on the global economic crisis, two ongoing wars and a $500 billion deficit to keep their many competing factions disciplined and unified around a limited number of broad common goals, rather than a blizzard of narrow and more partisan objectives.

"The good news for Democrats is that we lived through this in '93 and '94," said Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist and a former Democratic leadership aide in the House. What the party learned, he said, is that "you have to focus on the day-to-day concerns. People believe the country is off-track and someone needs to fix it. Other things are important, but they don't fit to that goal."

The key is to keep the mandate straight, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a member of the House leadership and a senior Clinton White House aide. "There are certain things that people this year are voting for and certain things they're voting against. We'll be successful as a party if we're known as the party of reform. We will be unsuccessful if we do things the way they've always been done."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company