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  •   In Divided House, All Eyes on 2000

    Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) make fund-raising calls at Democratic headquarters this spring. (The Post)
    By Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, June 3, 1999; Page A3

    Michigan Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Rogers is far from a national political figure. But when he came to Washington recently, top House Republicans were eager to spare time for him: House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) spent more than half an hour telling Rogers's wife, Diane, that her husband would still have time for his family if he ran for an open congressional seat.

    "Dick Armey spent more time talking to her than he did to me," said Rogers, a former FBI agent. "She walked out of there all fired up and ready to go."

    Rogers is not alone in receiving the red carpet treatment from House leaders nowadays. With the parties virtually stalemated on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans have largely shelved hopes of major legislation and turned their attention to finding good candidates and raising the money necessary to win control of the House next year.

    It promises to be a fierce and protracted struggle, with either side capable of gaining a majority next year depending on the outcome of a few dozen close races. Indeed, the political landscape surrounding the House races has shifted subtly over the past few months, with the congressional parties in rough parity for the moment.

    Buoyed over impeachment and the GOP's leadership upheaval, Democrats made headway early on in raising unprecedented sums of money and attracting viable candidates. But public anxiety about the conflict over Kosovo, coupled with a deliberately less confrontational leadership approach, has helped House Republicans regain their equilibrium.

    The GOP has drawn close to the Democrats on the generic ballot question of which party voters would prefer to be in charge of Congress, and Republicans are accelerating their efforts to mine close ties with Washington's K Street lobbying community to expand their fund-raising advantage over the Democrats.

    House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other leaders also are helping launch a multimillion-dollar effort to fund get-out-the-vote activities and run issue advertisements in key congressional districts – a plan that Democrats say skirts campaign finance law.

    It's far from clear that the redoubled GOP efforts will succeed in reversing the steady erosion in the party's control of the House, where Republicans have lost seats in each of the past two elections and have only a six-vote margin. The new House speaker has struggled to assert control over the legislative agenda; while party strategists are hoping Hastert's low-key approach will help defuse public discomfort with the Republican-led House, emboldened Democrats are already gearing up to campaign against a "do-nothing" Congress.

    In many respects, the contest for control of the House promises to be almost as critical – and competitive – as the 2000 presidential campaign, which typically dominates the quadrennial election cycle. With the margins so close and success of the new president's agenda highly dependent on which party controls the chamber, "the House is where it's at," said the youthful chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (R.I.).

    Unlike the past several congressional campaigns, which were dominated by larger national trends, strategists for both parties foresee a long period of political trench warfare. Much of this election's dynamics are shaped by the fact that Republicans and Democrats are poised to fight over a smaller number of seats than in recent years, where broader national tides swept away lawmakers who had not established a firm hold over their districts. Vulnerable Democrats lost during the GOP tidal wave of 1994, while shaky Republicans were defeated in 1996 and 1998.

    Both parties are focused on a few states offering the potential for switching seats, such as California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Washington. Republicans, for example, see prospects in Pennsylvania, where President Clinton lost ground between 1992 and 1996, while Democrats are hoping to pick up ground in California, where several incumbent Republicans eked out narrow victories in 1998.

    For the moment, Hastert and his deputies have adopted what they've dubbed a "Do No Harm" strategy, which emphasizes few dramatic initiatives but tries to keep the legislative machinery grinding away. Next year, strategists say, will be the time to lay out grand themes, with the presidential campaign in full swing. "Keeping the trains running on time puts points on the scoreboard," said former GOP representative Bill Paxon (N.Y.), a close confidant of Hastert's.

    While trying to keep the House from erupting in controversy, GOP leaders also hope to repair a congressional campaign apparatus that received much criticism from inside the party last year.

    Under former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman John Linder (Ga.), the party raised vast sums of money to spend on issue ads, including a last-minute campaign highlighting impeachment. The strategy backfired, as Democrats focused on grass-roots activities instead, ultimately producing more electoral gains while the GOP was saddled with a debt of nearly $4 million.

    The Democrats have erased their 1998 campaign debt ahead of schedule, while Republicans are still working to eliminate their own. Republicans have begun exploiting their "underdog" status: A recent fund-raising letter pleading poverty and threatening to lay off campaign workers actually netted $700,000. And while the NRCC will not release its financial tallies until next month, the new chairman, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), said the party has raised substantially more than the record $6.9 million the Democrats collected in the first quarter of this year.

    House Republican leaders are capitalizing on their majority status in the Washington funding wars, deploying committee leaders such as Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer (Tex.) and Commerce Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (Va.) to extract dollars from the industries they oversee. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.) has coaxed commitments out of both lobbyists and rank-and-file members to direct thousands of dollars toward vulnerable incumbents over the next six months.

    DeLay and other leaders are also promoting an unconventional way to funnel more money into close races: a get-out-the-vote campaign aimed at raising $25 million, much like independent expenditures by organized labor. Organizers say the Republican Majority Issues Campaign does not plan to disclose its wealthy contributors and Democratic lawyer Robert Bauer has already asked Attorney General Janet Reno to probe its financing.

    On the campaign front, Republicans are moving quickly to capitalize on the open seats left by Democrats vying for higher office, such as Reps. Ron Klink in Pennsylvania, Robert E. Wise Jr. in West Virginia and Deborah Ann Stabenow in Michigan.

    Republicans also aggressively recruited Michigan Secretary of State Candice Miller, who won reelection with 69 percent of the vote and has decided to take on Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D) next year. Bonior has perennially faced tough elections and Davis assiduously courted Miller, who, in his own words, "wouldn't return our phone calls" a few months ago.

    Despite these GOP efforts, Democrats remain highly confident about their prospects of taking back control of the House. They have found plenty of hot prospects themselves, attracting so many potential candidates early on that Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the recruiting head, did not even have to ask Vice President Gore to call aspiring politicians.

    House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) and Kennedy – who spurned presidential and Senate candidacies, respectively – have also persuaded Democratic lawmakers such as Ted Strickland (Ohio), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Robert Menendez (N.J.) to eschew bids for higher office, arguing that they would have more influence in a House majority.

    They're also working to take advantage of several GOP incumbents' decision to impose term limits on themselves, including Reps. Jack Metcalf (Wash.), Tom Coburn (Okla.) and possibly Charles T. Canady (Fla.).

    Candidates such as California state Sen. Adam Schiff also give the Democrats reason to believe they can retake the House. Incumbent James E. Rogan (R), a former prosecutor and judge who rose to national attention as one of the lead prosecutors in the impeachment case against Clinton, barely won reelection last year and showed weak ratings in a DCCC internal poll.

    Schiff has run against Rogan twice and lost, but his state Senate district overlaps with Rogan's and he has established a legislative record on issues from child support enforcement to funding for local light-rail projects. Meanwhile, anger over Rogan's role in impeachment is likely to ensure some Hollywood money flows to Schiff.

    Kennedy is continuing to stoke outrage over the Republican impeachment drive on the fund-raising front, raising slightly more money in three months than the party got in the first six months of 1997 alone. While Kennedy is less of a hard-nosed strategist than former DCCC chairman Martin Frost (Tex.), his family pedigree holds an unparalleled cachet with donors. Even the legendary Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port made it on the list of enticements for big donors in a recent mailing.

    While Republicans voice skepticism that impeachment will endure as an issue, Democrats have escalated their attacks on the GOP in recent weeks, criticizing the Republican leadership for failing to move faster on issues such as campaign finance reform, gun control, protecting patients in HMOs and raising the minimum wage.

    With his caucus united behind this shadow agenda and confident about their chances of reclaiming the House, Gephardt is employing increasingly sharp rhetoric. "The faces have changed, but the policies have not," he said. "They're still dominated by the radical right wing and as long as they do that they're on shaky political ground, because that's not where the rest of the country is."


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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