Senate Races Energize Democrats
By Helen Dewar
With Sen. Harry M. Reid's razor-thin victory in Nevada, Democrats held Republicans to a draw in the Senate. This left the GOP with the same 55-to-45 margin of control that it had before the campaign started five votes short of what would be needed to end a Democratic filibuster and pass legislation.
Chastened Republicans signaled a new effort to sharpen their message, and there were some early rumbles of an internecine struggle that could lead to a challenge to the GOP's leadership team, perhaps as early as next month when both parties caucus to choose their leaders for the 106th Congress.
People want more attention paid to the quality of their lives and "we need to listen more carefully," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
Lott spoke favorably of scheduling action early next year on legislation to cut income tax rates, saying he would be "perfectly happy" to do so, even if Democrats tried to filibuster to keep it from coming to a vote.
"The idea of an across-the-board tax rate cut could be not only the fair thing to do for working Americans, it could be necessary to boost the economy," Lott told reporters.
But Republicans also signaled interest in more cooperative relations between President Clinton and Congress what National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell (Ky.) called a one-year "window of opportunity" before the presidential elections to "achieve some things that we agree upon for the American people," such as a Social Security overhaul.
For the time being, however, it was time for cheering among Democrats and sober reassessments among Republicans.
"We're ecstatic," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), apparently speaking of both the legislative and political prospects growing out of the Democrats better-than-expected showing in Tuesday's senatorial elections.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Kerrey (Neb.) said his party will now be well-positioned to pick up the five or six seats needed to reclaim control of the Senate in the 2000 elections, when, unlike this year, Republicans will have more seats at stake than the Democrats. This year Democrats defended 18 seats, compared with 16 for the Republicans; in two years, Republicans must defend 19 seats, compared with 14 for the Democrats.
"Our goal was to remain within range of a majority for the 2000 elections . . . and we achieved it," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.), Kerrey's co-chairman.
By contrast, Republicans were subdued, claiming credit for retaining control of both houses of Congress for the third election in a row but conceding that, despite their own much-ballyhooed efforts to fire up their core supporters, Democrats did a better job of motivating and mobilizing their own voters.
"I admire the effort they made," said McConnell at a post-election news conference with his House counterpart, Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.). Democrats, McConnell added, were "clearly more motivated."
Under pressure from some colleagues who contended that the party lacked a coherent and compelling message for the election, Republicans also acknowledged they will be focusing on a broad policy agenda as well as tactics in light of the mid-term election results.
"I think we need to talk more as Republicans about our commitment to tax cuts and growth and local control of education," said Lott.
While he would like to see a Senate "where we could cut off a Ted Kennedy filibuster," Lott said, referring to the parliamentary tactics of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), "we'll work with the numbers we have and we'll show the American people the differences between the two parties."
It was not until mid-day yesterday that Democrats could lay claim to a draw in the Senate, even though the final results from Nevada are still subject to an official count over the next week and a possible recount after that. According to the complete but unofficial count, Reid, who is in line to succeed retiring Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) as assistant minority leader, defeated his Republican challenger, Rep. John Ensign, by 459 out of more than 400,000 votes cast Tuesday.
In other races, both Democrats and Republicans picked up three seats, canceling out each other's gains.
For the Democrats, Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D) defeated Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R) in New York, and political newcomer John Edwards (D), a wealthy trial lawyer, ousted Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) in North Carolina. In addition, former Indiana governor Evan Bayh (D) won the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.).
On the GOP side, Illinois state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) unseated Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D), the only African-American in the Senate. In addition, Rep. Jim Bunning (R) defeated Rep. Scotty Baesler (D) for Ford's seat, and Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich (R) defeated Democrat Mary Boyle for the seat of retiring Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio).
Elsewhere, endangered Democratic incumbents such as Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Russell D. Feingold (Wis.) and Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.) survived.
With the victories of Hollings and Edwards in the Carolinas and the election of former representative Blanche Lambert Lincoln (D) to a Democratic-held open seat in Arkansas, the Democrats held back the GOP tide in the South.
Even though they lost the Kentucky seat, Democrats could take solace in the fact that Bunning, a conservative Republican, ran on many issues normally championed by Democrats, including Social Security, education and job preservation. Elsewhere, leading factors in the outcome ranged from the nastier-than-thou tone of the New York campaign to Faircloth's unsuccessful attempt to link his rival to Clinton as "tobacco-taxing liberals."
The election will leave little official impact on the Senate, aside from the likely ascension of Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) to the chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee, replacing D'Amato.
The reelection of Feingold, cosponsor of the leading campaign finance overhaul bill who campaigned under self-imposed spending restrictions, was a boost for electoral reform. However, another proponent of campaign finance reform went down when Bunning beat Baesler. McConnell, the chief foe of the reform bill, made a top priority of electing Bunning.
Anti-abortion forces appeared to have gained some strength but did not pick up the three votes needed in the Senate to override Clinton's veto of a controversial bill banning a form of late-term abortions.
As for a possible challenge to the GOP leadership, Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), who criticized its handling of the big spending bill just before Congress adjourned, said he had a half-dozen calls yesterday from senators who were concerned about the election's outcome.
"You can't win elections if you have nothing to say," Hagel said in an interview. "We are the majority party, we need an agenda to work from and that is tied to the leadership."
"But whether it requires a change in the leadership remains to be seen," he added.
Lott said he did not anticipate a challenge. "If the leadership sets out a clear agenda for next year and begins working on carrying that out . . . we'll succeed in that," he said.
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