GOP ready to push forward

Congressional Dems in disarray

News & Observer Washington BureauNovember 4, 2004 

Republicans will be much stronger on Capitol Hill next year, almost in a position to give President Bush whatever he wants on taxes, limits on legal damages, drilling in the Arctic and nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court.

With minimum clout in the House and reduced numbers in the Senate, Democrats will have to be more careful in deciding what battles to fight against a more powerful Republican majority.

Politically, House Democrats have just about hit rock bottom, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conceded Wednesday. "We have lost just about everything we can lose," she said.

Rep. Robert Matsui of California, who as chairman of the House Democrats' campaign committee saw the GOP advantage grow, threw out a challenge to Bush that effectively conceded that voters had handed the president and Republicans a mandate.

Matsui urged that they introduce legislation on their plans for changing Social Security and substituting a national sales tax for the federal income tax.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, whose political influence might be even more acknowledged now that he engineered the defeat of four Texas Democrats through a redistricting plan, suggested that the GOP plan an ambitious agenda starting in January.

"Time to start thinking beyond just growing the economy, and about fundamentally strengthening it by ridding our economy of the over-taxation, over-regulation and over-litigation that has hamstrung it for decades," DeLay said.

After an election that awarded the Republican majority its first increase in seats in a presidential election year since 1928, DeLay now appears to have the votes and momentum to roll back significant portions of the New Deal legislation on the books for over 70 years.

Wednesday afternoon, three races were left unsettled, two of them Louisiana races headed for a runoff Dec. 4, The Associated Press reported.

Senate GOP leaders were more subdued. But they made clear they intend to use their new strength to enact what they were denied the past four years.

Aides to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said that enactment of a national energy policy that would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling would be high on the agenda.

They said Republicans are resolved to win quick approval of legislation to limit the amount of money damages in lawsuits and to trim spending on government programs that were off limits during the election year.

A big slice of the GOP agenda was blocked this year because Democrats had the votes, the will and the leadership to force indefinite delays. In the outgoing Senate, Republicans have 51 votes, giving them a slim advantage over the Democrats, who, counting independent James Jeffords of Vermont, have 49 votes.

In the Senate that will be formed in January, Republicans will have 55 votes, a gap of 10 over the Democrats with Jeffords.

The 55 GOP votes still will not be enough by themselves to halt Democratic filibusters. But it should prove a lot easier to pick up the votes of five Democrats rather than the previously needed nine.

Furthermore, Republicans have a symbolic trophy to display in the defeat in South Dakota of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle by former GOP Rep. John Thune.

The next few weeks will find Senate Democrats searching for a new leader to replace Daschle. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who has been assistant leader, has emerged as the leading candidate.

Senate aides said that Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, like Reid re-elected Tuesday, was testing the waters to see whether he might best Reid in a secret ballot of Democratic senators. But Dodd told CNN late Wednesday afternoon that he would support Reid.

The only real contest among the Democrats might be over the job of assistant leader to be vacated by Reid. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois was regarded as the front-runner.

Still to be sorted out is the role to be played in the next Senate by John Kerry of Massachusetts. Kerry's return set up the possibility of a tussle among Democrats to see whose is regarded as the party's top voice.

If precedent is any guide, Reid or Pelosi would be the natural leaders for a party in the minority. But attention will also focus on Kerry and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. In a more distant sense, Senate watchers will be studying Barack Obama, the newly elected senator from Illinois and the only African-American in the Senate.

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