Jewish World Review July 23, 2001 / 3 Menachem-Av, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Bush's congressional dilemma -- AS a president elected with a minority popular vote, George W. Bush and his political strategists obviously recognize that he faces a stiff test between now and 2004 to position himself for re-election. For all the brave talk about having a mandate, the jury is still out on the comfort level the American people feel with him in the Oval Office.

That test in fact may have a much closer deadline of less than 16 months from now, in the next congressional elections. If the Democrats manage to hold onto or increase their one-vote majority in the Senate and pick up the six seats they need to control the House, the second half of Bush's term could be a nightmare for him.

Events of recent weeks on Capitol Hill have already demonstrated how critical to Bush's agenda the loss of Senate leadership and disaffection of Republican moderates in the House have become. The elevation of Democrat Tom Daschle as Senate majority leader has robbed Bush of his ability to set legislative priorities, throwing his party into a defensive posture against Democratic initiatives.

In the House, the Republicans' narrow 12-seat advantage couldn't prevent rejection of their leadership's proposed rule on a campaign finance reform vote, with 19 GOP moderates defecting. The party split is now 222 Republicans, 210 Democrats, but one of the two House independents, Bernard Sanders, votes with the Democrats on organizational questions and one vacant seat, after the death of Joe Moakley, is considered certain to be filled by another Democrat in a special election.

Thus, Bush could also lose control of the agenda in the House if, as matters stand today, the Democrats can pick up seats in only six congressional districts of all 435 up in 2002. While historically more than 90 percent of running House incumbents are re-elected, the required Democratic pickup may be peanuts if Bush has an unimpressive first two years.

Also historically, since 1946 the party of a new president has lost an average of 26 House seats in the first congressional election after he takes office. In the last century, no Republican administration has gained House seats after its first two years, and only one Democratic administration did it, that of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934.

In Bush's first months, Republican control of Congress was essential in getting early consideration and passage of his tax cut and moving his education bill to the brink of enactment. In those days, his lieutenants worked with one eye on the health of 98-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond, who represented the slender reed by which Bush's party held onto Senate control. The surprise switch of Sen. Jim Jeffords from Republican to independent ranks made the grisly Thurmond death watch irrelevant.

Instead, Republican nose-counters have shifted their gaze to the beleaguered Democratic Sen. Bob Torricelli, in the slim hope that the allegations of ethical misconduct against him might force him out and at least temporarily restore GOP control of the Senate.

More likely, the 2002 off-year elections will be the determining battleground. The only open Senate seat as of now is Thurmond's, who has announced he will retire. Republican Rep. Lindsey Graham of Clinton impeachment celebrity will be running for the seat, with the former president of the College of Charleston, Alex Sanders, announced to oppose him.

With one third of the Senate up in 2002, the Republicans will risk 20 seats to only 14 Democratic incumbents facing re-election, but most of the Republican seats are in states Bush won comfortably last year.

Four Republican Senate incumbents, in New Hampshire, Arkansas, Colorado and Oregon, are considered by the Democrats to be vulnerable, to at least eight Democrats targeted by the Republicans, in Montana, Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri, Iowa, Louisiana, Georgia and New Jersey. In the House, with redistricting based on the 2000 census still shaking out, it's too early to pinpoint the vulnerabilities in either party, although from 80 to 100 House races probably will be targeted.

A lot can happen between now and then, but Bush cannot afford to look past the 2002 congressional elections in his thinking about re-election in 2004.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

07/19/01: Katharine Graham, giant
07/11/01: Finessing election reform
07/09/01: Listening to, and watching, Ashcroft
07/06/01: New comedian in the House (of Representatives)
06/27/01: Spinning Campaign Finance Reform's latest 'headway'
06/25/01: When Dubya says 'the check is in the mail,' you can believe him
06/22/01: The push on patients' rights
06/20/01: If you can't trust historians, how can you trust history?
06/18/01: World Refugee Day
06/13/01: Remembering 'Hubert'
06/11/01: Ventura faces government shutdown
06/06/01: McCain doth protest too much
06/04/01: Memo to the Bush daughters
05/30/01: Missing in action: Democratic outrage
05/30/01: Honoring World War II vets
05/23/01: Lauding the Nixon pardon
05/21/01: Messin' with McCain
05/18/01: A great movie plot
05/16/01: The level of public sensibility these days
05/14/01: "I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States"

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