Through the long evening of Election Day, the denizens of Capitol Hill had to keep pinching themselves to make sure they weren't dreaming. The day of reckoning turned out to be more like some strategic acupuncture than the expected bloodletting. Rather than ousting House and Senate incumbents wholesale, voters embarked on a search-and-destroy mission. When the votes were in, only 23 House members had lost, mostly scandal-tainted check-bouncers and victims of hostile redistricting plans. And just three senators were casualties.

But appearances can be deceiving. Although the turnover turned out to be far smaller than expected, the new Congress will be a different place. True, with one of their own in the White House, congressional Democrats no longer have to focus on overriding vetoes and checkmating the President. But the new Democrats bring their own agenda to Washington, which could spell trouble for President-elect Clinton and congressional leaders.

And beneath the surface calm--the alignment of 259 Democrats, 175 Republicans, and 1 independent shows almost no change--the composition of the House membership has changed drastically. More than half of the 67 new Democrats are women or minorities. Nearly all of the 42 new GOP members are white, but just three are women.

The Democrats gained one seat in the Senate, taking their margin--for now--to 58-42 (Georgia Democrat Wyche Fowler Jr. must survive a Nov. 24 runoff against Republican Paul Coverdell). The number of Senate women jumped from two to six. Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer won the two California seats, and Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) became the first black woman elected to the Senate. "It's a new day in America," says Braun.

FRUSTRATION. That's a bit of postelection hype. Still, the change will have a dramatic effect on legislation. With both Congress and the White House firmly in their control, Democrats won't settle just for giving speedy consideration to Bill Clinton's economic program. They'll go to work immediately on their own long-frustrated agenda. At the top of the list are family leave, full funding of Head Start, new tax credits for child care, and, most controversial, a law guaranteeing a woman's right to abortion. All are likely to pass, but the new Congress will be far from a knee-jerk liberal institution.

One reason: A lot of veterans won't be around. Among the most notable victims: Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), felled by 213 bad checks and repeated ethics charges; Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.), a senior Ways & Means Committee member done in by a more Republican district and 151 overdrafts; Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.), saddled with a racketeering indictment; and Bill Green (N.Y.), one of the House's last liberal Republicans, whose revised district included too many Democratic partisans.

More remarkable, though, is the list of survivors. Not a single member of either party's leadership went down to defeat, despite frenzied Democratic efforts to oust Republican Whip Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and an aggressive GOP assault on House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Vic Fazio (Calif.), and even House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (Wash.). The Democratic leaders squeezed through with margins that were uncomfortably close.

Most of those who survived tight House races did so by recognizing early that this year was going to be trouble. They went out and raised huge war chests, then pumped hands and kissed babies with an intensity they hadn't shown since their first race. Representative Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), one of the House's most flamboyant globe-trotters, was picked by many pundits to lose to an aggressive challenger, Donna Peterson. But during the campaign, Wilson stayed close to home. He tirelessly prowled his East Texas district in a motor home, deflecting voters' anger and charming them into returning him with a relatively comfortable margin.

SWING AND MISS. Ironically, Ross Perot's insurgency may have helped officeholders of both parties. Although political scientists had predicted that Perot backers would slash and burn all incumbents, their fury seemed to be spent by casting a protest vote for President. "A lot of the anti-incumbency votes went to Perot, and they didn't go down the ticket," says one Republican strategist.

With far more to lose, Democrats found the fading of the anti-incumbent spirit especially welcome. Early in the campaign, the GOP hoped to pick up more than 40 Democratic seats as a result of well-publicized House scandals, redistricting plans favorable to Republicans, and the general throw-the-bums-out mood. In the end, however, Republicans gained just nine seats. "A minority party rarely has an opportunity like this to make significant gains," says Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier. "They swung and missed, and it's going to have long-term negative implications for the party."

Still, with a record number of retirements, nearly one-fourth of the House members who will assemble for organizational meetings next month will be first-timers. That, inevitably, has set off speculation about possible changes in leadership on both sides of the aisle.

Although Foley and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) probably won't be challenged, the leadership is nervous. No one knows just what to expect when the new class hits Washington, but there's talk that the Democratic caucus will try to topple a committee chairman or two. The most vulnerable: Appropriations Committee Chairman Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.), 82 years old and ailing.

To forestall any freshman pranks, House Democratic leaders have scheduled a series of conferences with the incoming representatives. And they are discouraging the first-term Democrats from participating in a planned December bipartisan conference of newcomers.

Republicans face some tough decisions of their own. For the past decade, the GOP minority in the House, abused by the Democrats and largely ignored by the White House, has resorted to nihilist bomb-throwing. In the new environment, does the GOP try to cooperate with Clinton on middle-of-the-road, bipartisan solutions to tough issues such as health care and campaign finance reform? Or does it revert to form and descend further into irrelevancy? "The American people are demanding change," says GOP consultant Jay Severin III. "Republicans run the risk of looking like obstructionists, the last vestiges of the hated gridlock."

YOUNG TURKS. House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) inclines toward conciliation. But younger House Republicans are demanding more aggressive action, not Clinton-coddling. After Michel talked of the need to work with the new Administration, GOP Young Turks threatened rebellion. "We have to clean house a little bit in the Republican leadership," warned Representative Richard J. Santorum (R-Pa.).

The choice the GOP makes will be critical to Clinton's legislative strategy. If the self-styled "New Democrat" is to wean his party from its liberal past, he will have to do battle with the left wing on the Hill. Success will require winning Republican votes to bolster a coalition of Democratic centrists and conservatives.

A hard line could force Clinton further to the left than he wants to go. Representative Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.), a conservative Democrat, warns that the President-elect needs the GOP if he is to resist the liberal Democrats' agenda. "It's a bad sign if the Republicans are totally obstructionist from the word 'go,' " says Stenholm. "The Democrats have the votes to prevail. But that's not in the best interests of the country."

In the end, however, it's up to the Democrats to make Congress work again. "We've got the burden," says Senator Harris Wofford (D-Pa.). "We'll have to stand and deliver--or blow it and face the music." Spoken like a man who believes anti-incumbent fury could easily flare again.

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