After Mitchell, A Less Liberal Senate Seems Likely

With shock waves from Senate Majority Leader Mitchell's Mar. 4 retirement announcement still reverberating through the Capitol, it's tough to handicap the race to succeed him. But one thing is clear: The Senate leadership will move to the right--and that will reshape the legislative outlook for the second half of Clinton's term.

Mitchell, the Democratic leader since 1988, has been a skillful advocate for liberals, even as the Senate majority has moved closer to the center. A more moderate replacement would accentuate the differences between the Senate and the more liberal House majority.

The shift would also change the dynamics of congressional relations with the White House. For example: A centrist Senate leader might have saved Clinton an embarrassing defeat by warning him off last year's economic stimulus plan.

The early frontrunners in the race for leader include New Democrat John B. Breaux (La.), 50, whose friendship with the President has not kept him from opposing Clinton's health-reform and economic plans, and Majority Whip Wendell H. Ford (Ky.), 69, an old-school moderate. More liberal contenders are Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), a low-key baby-boomer and Mitchell prot g , and John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), a leader on health care.

Business groups, often frustrated by Mitchell's soak-the-rich inclinations, are looking forward to the change. Breaux and Ford have worked closely with corporate lobbyists on issues ranging from taxes to the environment. And while Daschle is more liberal, he meets monthly with business leaders. "He is accessible," says one trade-group lobbyist. "He may not agree with us all the time, but he is willing to listen." Rockefeller, meanwhile, bears the most famous name in American business.

Leadership races are unpredictable, often decided by personal relationships and regional alliances rather than ideology. But the odds are good that beginning next year, new leadership will at last reflect the growing strength of Democratic moderates in the Senate.

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