September 10, 2001
Time and Tide May Decide Makeup, Control of Congress
by Joseph P. Tartaro
Politicians and policy makers can fret and scheme and plan to gain or hold power, but for all their skill and cunning, the decisions may not be theirs to make. As the Scots poet Robert Burns so aptly put it more than 200 years ago, Nae man can tether time or tide.
Given winds of change that neither men nor congresses can control, the best the strategic power brokers can hope to do is ready themselves to best exploit the opportunities that change presents.
Most Americans have been well aware of the sudden change in control of the Senate brought about by Vermonts Sen. James Jeffords departure from the Republican Party. Few, however, realize that the GOPs chances of regaining control of the Senate, or keeping control of the House are being dimmed by time and tide.
So precariously balanced was GOP control of the Senate after the 2000 elections that a shift in a single organizing vote was enough to transfer control to the Democrats. In the House, it would take a shift in only six votes to make Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-MO) he new Speaker of the House.
I got to thinking more about this with the news in one week of the death of Republican Rep. Floyd Spence of South Carolina and the announcement by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) that he was retiring from the Senate next year at the end of his present term.
NRA Praises Spence
Spence died on Aug. 16 at a Mississippi hospital, a week after surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain. Spence, mourned by the National Rifle Association (NRA) as a great friend of gunowners and a protector of their rights, was 73.
Spence, who hailed from Lexington, SC, was first elected to Congress in 1970. He served as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee from January 1995 to January 2001 and was also a member of the Veterans Affairs committee.
NRA officials were not alone in mourning Spences passing. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called Spence a patriot and a dedicated public servant. As a leader on the House Armed Services Committee, he cared deeply about our men and women in uniform and helped secure peace through his commitment to the strength of our armed forces, Rumsfeld said in a statement.
The loss of the one Republican seat in South Carolina further narrows the margin of control in the House. Spences passing, together with the already announced retirement of Sen. Strom Thurmond, another Palmetto state Republican, is sort of a double blow for people in that state.
Their neighbors in North Carolina got a jolt on Aug. 22 when Sen. Jesse Helms, one of the most powerful conservative voices in Congress, confirmed in a broadcast over WRAL-TV in Raleigh that he plans to retiredue to his advanced agewhen his term expires amd the new Congress is seated in January 2003.
Helms, who will turn 80 on Oct. 18, was first elected to the Senate in 1972. In recent years, he has suffered from a variety of health problems, including prostate cancer. His retirement had been rumored and speculated about for weeks and especially in the days before his announcement on the television station where he was once a broadcast commentator. Before seeking political office, Helms had also been a newspaper editor.
Helms staff late on Aug. 21 began telling senior Republicans, including Bush advisers, that he would not seek another term, according to two GOP sources.
Helms name has been a rainmaker for fund-raisers in both major parties in recent years. His leadership in defending traditional conservative and constitutional issues, including the right to keep and bear arms, helped him and other Republicans raise millions in contributions. The Democrats also used him as a sort of bogeyman to frighten their liberal contributors into donating millions to their party. And, in addition to the parties themselves, issue-oriented groups on the left and right invoked Helms name and views to raise funds.
Helms departure means everybody on the right and left will have to find new inspirations for their fund-raising and it further complicates GOP hopes of reclaiming the narrowly divided Senate. Democrats got control when Jeffords defected. Then the 98-year-old Thurmond said he will not seek re-election next year, and Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) has been sending uncertain signals about whether or not he will seek re-election in 2002.
In North Carolina, a scramble has already begun.
Failed presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole, who hasnt held elective office before although she has served in high appointive posts in the Reagan and first Bush Administrations, has announced formation of a committee to seek the GOP nomination for the Helms seat. And, although GOP leaders were hoping to avoid a nasty primary fight, Dole could be challenged by former Sen. Lauch Faircloth, who was defeated in 1998 by Democrat John Edwards.
The odds tend to favor the Democrats in the 2002 Senate races. Republicans will be defending 20 Senate seats next year, including Thurmonds and Helms, while Democrats will be defending 14. Republicans will counter the Democrats numerical advantage by targeting seats in the Midwest and South in states held by Democratic senators but won by President Bush in 2002, like South Dakota, Missouri and Montana. The GOP also is expected to put up a stiff challenge in Iowa and Minnesota, two states narrowly won last year by Al Gore.
The struggle for control of the House of Representatives is also problematic. Democrats nibbled away at the Republican hold on the House during last years elections. Now time and tidedeaths and retirementsare steadily affecting the process.
With the death of Spence, the political makeup of the House is now 220 Republicans, 210 Democrats, 2 independents and 3 vacancies, according to The New York Times. Put another way, pending elections to fill the three vacancies, the Democrats can thwart the Republican agenda anytime they can steal away six Republican votesand providing they can hold on to all of their own votes. (The independent vote is generally a wash, with one going Republican and the other Democratic.)
And while maintaining the six-vote margin is a constant worry for Republican leaders, the situation is going to get worse before it gets better. Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-FL), was expected to resign on Sept. 6, meaning the Republican edge over the Democrats will shrink even more, to 219-210, with vacant seats then in four statesSouth Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts and Arkansas.
Come Oct. 16, the seats in Florida and Massachusetts will be filled in special elections. But the Republican margin is not expected to improve then because a Democrat is favored to win in Massachusetts and a Republican in Florida.
As for the two vacant seats then remaining, a special election will be held on Nov. 20 to fill the seat in Arkansas, in a heavily Republican district. But nine days later, Rep. Steve Largent (R-OK) is scheduled to resign, meaning the margin will again shrink.
Special elections for Largents seat in Oklahoma and Spences seat in South Carolina will probably be held by the end of the year, and both seats will probably remain in Republican hands. That means the House Republicans can anticipate expanding their edge over Democrats to 222-211.
This best-case scenario for the GOP still means that a switch of just six votes, or seats, would give the Democrats a majority in both houses of Congress. Anti-gunner Gephardt would become speaker, and anti-gunner Rep. John Conyers of Michigan would become chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Strategists for both parties have been weighing their options in such a volatile and narrow fight for control of Congress. And while some Democrats have been talking about their party backing away from gun initiatives, if they are successful in regaining the reigns of power, anti-gunners like Gephardt and Conyers will be controlling the agenda.
Meanwhile, the wild-card forces of time and tide could change the dynamics of the Capitol Hill power struggle at any time.
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