- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2006

We may have to amend the old aphorism that “closeness only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” and add Congress to that list as well. While Tuesday’s election results are still unknown, one thing seems certain: The next Congress will emerge as one of the most closely divided in history.

Short of some unexpected anti-Republican wave — which some are predicting, but I don’t see materializing — it looks like Republicans will lose somewhere between 12 and 20 House seats. It’s a spread loaded with significance.

While most forecasters might view the difference between 12 and 20 as a relatively narrow band — and certainly on the low end of what one would expect based on historical average losses for a second-term president’s party in an off-year election — Republicans losing 15 or more seats in the House will tip the balance of party control to the Democrats. And although I’m not ready to concede Republicans losing the House, the 110th Congress, which convenes in January, could be one of the most evenly balanced in history — an institutional framework that neither party has a great deal of experience navigating.

The current partisan breakdown of the House is 230 Republicans and 201 Democrats (with one independent, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucuses with the Democrats, and three vacancies, two Republican and one Democratic, for a total of 435 seats). The Senate breakdown is 55 Republicans and 44 Democrats (with one independent, James Jeffords, also of Vermont, who caucuses with the Democrats).

For the past 150 years — since the beginning of the two-party era, around the time of the Civil War — there have been only four Congresses where the margin between Republicans and Democrats in the House has been 10 seats or fewer: the 65th Congress (1917-19), the 72nd Congress (1931-33), the 83rd Congress (1953-55) and the 107th (2001-03). My personal favorite in the category of bizarre outcomes is the 72nd Congress. After the 1930 elections, House Republicans retained a narrow majority. But in those days the Congress did not organize until March of the following year. By that time, in the spring of 1931, a couple of the House Republicans had died, giving the Democrats the majority to organize the House for the 72nd Congress.

The Senate has had a little — but not much — more experience with close divisions. Thirteen Congresses since 1855 have had margins of five or fewer separating the Republicans and Democrats. But as frequent readers of this column know, partisan ratios mean less in the modern Senate unless one side or the other garners 60 votes.

In the House, however, where simple majority control makes a big difference, the implications of a closely divided chamber are many. In the short run, if either party controls the majority by just a few votes, electing a speaker in January may become contentious if even a few members refuse to support their caucus nominee. If the Democrats, for example, were to gain a majority by a seat or two, some are speculating that a few moderate Southerners might balk at having one of their first votes in the House be for Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the liberal Californian, as speaker.

Moreover, if either party captured a narrow majority, would it try to consolidate its caucus and emphasize party unity? Or, would it view the slim margin as a sign from voters that bipartisan strategies are more appropriate? One House Republican leader told me it’s easier to maintain party discipline and unity in a more closely divided House because every lawmaker’s vote matters. “With bigger majorities, some party defections don’t make a difference,” he said. “As long as you don’t dip below 218, you can allow some of your party members to vote against you. But in a narrow majority it’s easier for the leadership to limit defections by just saying ‘no.’ It doesn’t always work, but you don’t even start down the road of giving some members a pass on a tough vote,” he said.

Finally, one area not constrained by closeness is the majority party’s ability to investigate. And if the Democrats were to take over the House, there will not be a subpoena scarcity. House rules provide the majority — even a narrow one — with ample tools to conduct investigations. And a closely divided Democratic House, possibly stymied on the legislative front, will have even more time to probe a Republican administration. And if that scenario unfolds, expect a Democratic majority to toss a lot more investigative hand grenades than bipartisan legislative horseshoes.

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