WASHINGTON – Regardless of which party wins control of the House and Senate on Nov. 7, moderate members stand to emerge with the most political cachet, since the likely narrow margin will leave little room for ambitious agendas, say political prognosticators.
"I think the greater middle is going to prevail and it's going to be more influential in the 110th Congress," said Mark Wrighton, associate professor of politics at the University of New Hampshire. "I think there are some members out there who are quite excited by the possible opportunities they might have.”
Sarah Chamberlain Reznick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, which represents moderate Republican elected officials across the country, including eight senators and 48 House members, says her group is poised for a revival of sorts.
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“Either way, whether [Republicans] lose or maintain control, it will be by very tight margins,” she said. “In my opinion, there will be a balance of power.”
House Democrats are jazzed by election polls that predict a takeover of the majority for the first time since the Republican revolution in 1994. They are touting an agenda they say moderates in both parties will go for: raising the minimum wage, tightening ethics and lobbying rules and changing the war policy in Iraq.
Talk is also widespread about reintroducing legislation that would expand stem cell research, which passed Congress this year but was vetoed by President Bush in July.
"There is absolute Democratic consensus in the Democratic caucus on these proposals," said Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who stands to be the new speaker of the House in a Democrat majority.
As featured in their “Six for ‘06” plan, congressional Democrats say they also want to retool the new Medicare prescription drug program, prevent Social Security privatization, pursue energy independence and make college more affordable — all in the first session of the two-year 110th Congress.
"We expect there will be moderate Republican support on many of those proposals," Hammill said.
Wrighton said issues like stem cell research and the minimum wage have a good shot of passage since they enjoy the support of Republican moderates. A more “comprehensive” immigration reform bill that includes some sort of guest worker program for illegal immigrants will face a higher chance of passage.
The war policy in Iraq too could earn deeper scrutiny, as members from both parties have expressed doubts through the campaign season about the direction of the war.
“You will probably find some kind of resolution and secondarily, an appropriation rider to put a time-certain on our commitment in Iraq and other kinds of restraints on what we can or can’t do," predicted Mike Franc, congressional expert at the Heritage Foundation.
Though Wrighton does not predict any real radical legislation will reach President Bush's desk this year, some partisans say they aren't so sure a lot of compromising will occur. They warn that Democrats will be dominated by their left-leaning sensibilities and will try to push more far-left ideas.
"Nancy Pelosi is not a moderate. She is a liberal from San Francisco," said Richard Engle, president of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies.
Already, Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, the would-be chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, has told reporters he is not seeking to roll back tax cuts, one of the repeated warnings by Republicans against a Democratic House. Such assurances haven’t stopped speculation, especially after Rangel stated last month that everything is on the table in terms of revising the tax code.
Just the specter of a “Speaker Pelosi” has been used to energize voters among the conservative base. “It's just plain scary,” House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said of a prospective Democratic agenda under Pelosi.
"While Republicans fight the War on Terror, grow our robust economy, and crack down on illegal immigration, House Democrats plot to establish a Department of Peace, raise your taxes and minimize penalties for crack dealers,” he said.
“It’s a desperate campaign of fear-mongering and scare tactics,” countered Hammill. “It’s disappointing that we can’t have a more serious debate over the issues Americans want to address.”
The Senate Democratic Outlook
Democrats need six seats to reclaim the Senate majority from Republicans. Though not impossible, the feat will likely be decided by just one or two seats, meaning any bill that requires cloture, or a 60-member vote, to pass will have an even harder time getting through than it did this session.
But a willingness for some compromise is evident in the Senate. For example, the so-called “Gang of 14” Democrats and Republicans worked together this year to avoid a filibuster of President Bush’s Supreme Court judicial nominations.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reportedly has already reached out to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the second GOP leader in command. Reid could be the next majority leader if Democrats win. McConnell may inherit the post held by retiring Sen. Bill Frist if Republicans keep the majority. Reid is said to be looking for common ground on stem cell research, the minimum wage and Iraq, issues that are poised to take center stage if Democrats take over the Senate.
“There would be a lot of pressure on the Democrats in the Senate to produce, as there should be pressure,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who is seeking re-election.
Despite the supposed gesture, Republicans accuse Senate Democrats of being obstructionists. They point to Reid's previous threats to bring the legislative process to a grinding halt if Republicans invoked the “nuclear option” in order to end-run threatened Democratic filibusters of the Bush judiciary nominees.
Reid also forced the Senate floor into a rare closed-door session last November in an attempt to push the Senate Intelligence Committee to pursue their investigation into failed intelligence prior to the Iraq war.
Regardless of the majority winner, analysts say they expect moderates like Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, and Democrats Nelson and Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to have more influence next year.
"The more centrist, the more moderate element of both parties, they're going to play a key role in determining what gets done," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., head of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.
Dorgan said both parties have the sense that they need to come together. He noted that any Democratic control of Congress in the next two years will be offset by a Republican White House.
As for the president, whose term ends in two years, a more Democratic Congress may put pressure on his administration to cooperate in big issue items, Dorgan said. However, without that cooperation, gridlock could ensue.
"Having lame duck status is more a phrase than a real condition," he said. "If the president really wants to get things done and reach across the aisle in a bipartisan way, he still has enormous capability." If not, Dorgan said, "nothing will get done."
What Would a Republican Majority Do?
Analysts differ on what they imagine a Republican-held House will look like after the contentious midterm election.
“I think you're going to find, particularly in the Republican Party, a sea change in leadership,” said Wrighton.
Franc said he thinks moderates are more at risk of losing their seats in this year’s elections, and if Republicans do hold onto the House majority, it will only embolden more ideological conservatives to stick to their roots.
“It could provide a big momentum for a return to the fundamentals,” said Franc.
Republican sources say a GOP majority will pursue permanent tax cuts, a ban on earmarks and an effort to get a handle on federal spending. Others note that a rejection of the current GOP leadership might make it more difficult to pursue enforcement-centered immigration reform that Republicans had been pushing in the House.
Engle said the election will decide not only which party controls the House and Senate, but whether conservatives or moderates take charge of the caucuses. That leadership will determine the direction of a congressional agenda.
If conservatives lose big in this election, “people will fight the president so much nothing will get done,” he said.