Republicans poised to set agenda
But thin margin of control may prevent achievement of most ambitious goals
Republicans' decisive victory left Democrats in disarray. By last night, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri had decided, to step down as leader of the House Democrats, aides said, touching off what's sure to be a vigorous race to succeed him.
Control of the House, Senate and White House will allow Republicans to set the agenda on key issues. These include a Medicare prescription drug benefit and business tax cuts.
But their still-thin margin of control might prevent Republicans from achieving their most ambitious goals, such as making Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut permanent, and could force them to compromise on others.
As party leaders basked in victory, their spokesmen were careful to note their slender majorities in both houses, laying the groundwork to blame Democrats if they fail to reach their goals.
"Last night's results increased the likelihood of getting things done for the American people," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman. But if Democrats "decide that they still want to exercise all their parliamentary rights, they can block, they can filibuster, they can use 60 votes to thwart a growing bipartisan consensus."
Fleischer was referring to Senate rules that require a three-fifths majority vote to surmount procedural hurdles commonly used to block legislation.
Republicans emerged from Tuesday's vote with 51 Senate seats, to the Democrats' 47. One independent, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, tends to support Democrats. The remaining slot will be decided in a Dec. 7 runoff for the Louisiana seat of Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat who failed to muster the 50 percent vote needed to prevail.
No matter who wins in Louisiana, the Republican leader in the Senate, Trent Lott of Mississippi, will become Senate majority leader in January.
"I'm excited to be able to be on offense working with this president," Lott said yesterday, after arriving at his office at 7 a.m. "We're ready to go to work."
The Republicans gained at least four slots in the House, where they now hold 227 seats, to the Democrats' 203. One independent, Bernard Sanders of Vermont, votes with Democrats. Four seats - one leaning Republican and three leaning Democrat - remained undecided yesterday.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, the Virginia Republican who chairs his party's House campaign committee, declared that Republicans had "out-campaigned" Democrats. Still, he conceded that his party's sweep of both chambers could be both a blessing and a curse.
"With responsibility, you get blamed when things go wrong," Davis said.
Despite the gains, the Republican agenda in the 108th Congress will include many items that Democrats call top priorities: reform of the welfare, pension and health care systems, a new energy policy and steps to boost a still-sagging economy.
There are major exceptions, notably Republican efforts to make permanent Bush's tax cut, many elements of which otherwise expire Dec. 31, 2010.
While Senate Democrats declined to produce a budget this year, Republicans are certain to pass a comprehensive fiscal blueprint in the spring that will include their top priorities. They can then essentially move their legislative agenda as a package and shield it from parliamentary tactics in the Senate.
In what promises to be another early consequence of Republican Senate control, Lott will move to confirm dozens of judges Bush has nominated to the federal bench but whose approvals have languished under Democratic control. With Republicans running the Senate, the Judiciary Committee is expected to approve judicial nominees, and Lott now has authority to call them up on the floor.
Analysts also say that GOP control makes it more likely that one of the Supreme Court justices, perhaps Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, will retire, allowing Bush to nominate a new justice and to have his allies in Congress help push the nomination.
In the short term, Congress is not likely to achieve much. The House and Senate are to reconvene next week in a lame-duck session to complete the work of the 107th Congress. Awaiting them are 11 of the 13 must-pass federal spending bills for fiscal 2003 and final agreements on bankruptcy overhaul and a terrorism insurance bill.
But it is not clear which party will run the Senate at that point. And it is unlikely that either could advance major agenda items in the waning days of the current Congress. Republicans now control more seats than Democrats because of the victory of former Missouri Rep. James M. Talent, who defeated Sen. Jean Carnahan in a special election, which allows him to be seated immediately.
Still, to take over Senate operations, Lott would have to be elected majority leader, and the major committees would have to reorganize - unlikely prospects late in the year. Also up in the air is which party Dean Barkley, the Minnesota independent who was appointed last week to replace the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, will vote with during the lame-duck session.
Lame duck refers to the departing lawmakers who still hold seats during the postelection period but whose influence is greatly diminished.
Lott is no fan of lame-duck sessions, he said yesterday, and will have a limited legislative agenda for the coming weeks.
"I don't think they serve the American people well," Lott said. "Even if the majority did change hands, getting a lot of substantive issues moved would be hard."
That is especially true given that Democrats are likely to be preoccupied with the shake-ups in their ranks that are certain to follow their election defeats.
A lame-duck session is also likely to yield final agreements on a bankruptcy overhaul bill and a terrorism insurance measure, both of which were nearing conclusion when Congress recessed last month to allow members to return to their states and campaign for re-election.
But on more contentious measures, such as the homeland security bill and a national energy policy overhaul, strategists say Republicans might wait until they have full control over Congress next year.
Democrats have opposed Bush's homeland security plan because he is seeking flexibility to waive the union and civil service rights of the new department's employees. Partisan disagreement has plagued energy legislation as well, with the two parties sparring over tax provisions, rules for energy trading and drilling in Alaska.