- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2000

Somewhat lost in the fire and smoke of Florida's fierce presidential war is the equally important balance-of-power story about which party really emerged victorious from all the other 2000 election battles.

It was difficult to tell on Election Night and even in the days that followed just which party came out ahead in the larger national political picture, both here and in the 50 states.

"I'm still trying to figure out which party won," an exasperated Gov. James Gilmore of Virginia said shortly after the Nov. 7 elections. But now, stepping back and looking out over the entire political battlefield that has been fought out over the 1990s in the age of Clinton and Gore, the bigger picture is beginning to come into focus.

Barring a dramatic, court-driven upset in Florida, it appears George W. Bush will be the next president of the United States. And what is equally important, he will be the first Republican president to have a GOP-controlled Congress in nearly half a century.

Thus, the Republicans, who have controlled the House and Senate since 1994 will now control both the executive branch and the legislative branches of government.

Yet the congressional numbers tell the story about the GOP's tenuous hold on political power on Capitol Hill.

In the House, the Republicans will have 221 seats and the Democrats 212, with two independents who are divided between the two parties. The Democrats, who needed just seven seats to take control, are now five seats away from winning a majority.

The chances of that happening in two years are much more difficult because of two big factors. Democratic leader Dick Gephardt talked a lot of old Democratic bulls into staying on for one more term. Many of them will be retiring in two years, opening up a lot more seats to Republican challenges.

The second factor is reapportionment under the 2000 census. The Democrats will gain a few seats in California, where they control the governorship and the legislature; but Republicans, who remain stronger in governorships and legislatures elsewhere in the nation, will likely pick up more when new congressional district lines are redrawn to adjust for population changes.

Republicans cling to power in the Senate with a 50-50 split in that chamber, with the tie-breaking vote cast by the vice president who presides over the Senate. The man in that chair will be Dick Cheney, who will vote to keep the chamber under GOP control.

The conventional wisdom in January was that the GOP would easily withstand the Democrats' attempt to take control of the Senate. But when the votes poured in, the Democrats had crushed five GOP incumbents, and held on to three of their four open seats. It was an unmitigated disaster for the GOP, which is still trying to figure out what happened. The answer, in two words: terrible candidates.

This will be the first time in more than a century that the Senate will be tied. And it portends a continuing political war between the two parties, and some difficulties for a Bush presidency.

The most dramatic sign of the Senate's 50-50 power struggle is going to occur on Jan. 3, when the new members are sworn in. For a unique 17-day period, the Democrats will be in control. The reason: The administration does not leave office until noon on Jan. 20, and until that time Vice President Al Gore will remain the Senate's presiding officer.

Democratic leader Tom Daschle has promised Majority Leader Trent Lott that he will not use this period to take power or run the Senate. But the possibility that the disputed presidential election will be fought out in Congress when the electoral votes are to be counted on Jan. 6 has the Republicans squirming.

The unpredictability of the Senate's tie does not end there. Under usual procedures, the committees' party ratios are adjusted according to the division in the Senate. The larger the majority's numbers, the more seats you get on each committee, and you get larger staffs and office space as well.

Mr. Daschle has talked of "sharing power," and is demanding an equal role in setting the legislative schedule and determining what amendments are to be called up an unlikely bid for power that Mr. Lott will not agree to. But make no mistake about it, one way or another Senate Democrats will exert much more power over the next two years.

Outside Washington, however, the Republicans hold most of the political power in the nation's governorships. The GOP has a huge 29-19 advantage in the states. The state legislatures are virtually tied, with the Republicans picking up two more statehouses.

In the end, the Democrats have not fared well under Bill Clinton and Al Gore. They entered 1993 with strong majorities in the House (261-174), the Senate (58-42), the governors (31-17), and in the state legislatures. But that has all changed dramatically.

Whatever spin the Democrats may want to put on this year's close elections, the cold, hard political reality is that their majorities have vanished in all three sectors. The GOP will control the reins of power here for the next four years.

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