The Gop Assault On Congress: Is A Second Wave Coming?

If history is any guide, the Democrats should win back Congress next year. Many of their 1994 defeats came narrowly, and Democratic strategists are quick to point out that landslide elections are almost always followed by "midcourse corrections."

So why are Republican lawmakers returning from their hometown Fourth of July parades with smiles on their faces? Because--history notwithstanding--early indications suggest that 1996 could be the year when the GOP consolidates its majority on Capitol Hill.

GOP strategists are downright cocky. They think they can pick up 20 more House seats to pad their current 232-202 edge. And they believe they're in reach of the 60 seats needed to choke off any Democratic filibusters in the Senate. The consequences of a Republican sweep could be enormous: A push for a flat tax to replace the current income tax, new attacks on social spending, a clearing away of environmental-protection laws, and a further squeeze on lawsuit damage awards.

Already, the Democrats' political pyrotechnics are fizzling. Racked by internal dissent, the party cannot come up with a positive agenda to counter the aggressive conservative program of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "We've not shown voters any reason to have confidence in us," frets Representative Bob Filner (D-Calif.). "Everybody in leadership thinks we're going to be back in power in 1996, but I think that's crazy."

PLENTY OF DOUGH. A clear message is only one key advantage for the Republicans. They also have plenty of dough to spread the word, thanks in large part to huge donations from business. "Financially, we're light-years ahead," gloats National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.). "So I think [the Democrats are] going to run smack into the wall of reality."

Another big problem: Even if Dems reverse some of their slim losses in the Rust Belt and on the West Coast, they face a mine field in Dixie. President Clinton's massive unpopularity and the South's surging Republicanism have prompted Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and two Southern congressmen to switch to the GOP and persuaded David Pryor of Arkansas, Howell Heflin of Alabama, and J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana to retire.

This Southern discomfort has all but dashed Democratic hopes of recapturing the Senate. The additional defection of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado means the party must gain five seats. With five Democrats and only one Republican--Colorado's Hank Brown--calling it quits, that's a clear edge for the GOP. Republicans won all nine open seats in 1994.

Led by National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, the Republicans are aggressively targeting incumbent Democrats. Topping the list are Max S. Baucus of Montana and Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who barely held off a challenge from now-Governor Christine Todd Whit-

man in 1990.

By contrast, only one Republican is in trouble: Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Larry Pressler of South Dakota faces the race of his life against Democratic Representative Tim Johnson. But while Democrats would love to knock off arch-conservative Senators Strom Thurmond, 92, of South Carolina and Jesse Helms, 73, of North Carolina, they'll have an uphill battle on hostile political turf.

In the House, Democrats see more opportunities for a comeback. Polls show that most Americans dislike Gingrich and consider him too extreme. Moreover, Democrats have scored points by accusing the Republicans of gutting Medicare and giving tax cuts to the rich. Although President Clinton blunted the Democratic attack by unveiling a balanced-budget plan with both Medicare savings and tax cuts, the Dems still think their line is a big winner.

Conceivably, Democrats could win the 16 seats needed to oust Gingrich, since they lost 41 races by less than 10 percentage points last time. Still, many Democrats barely survived, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Martin Frost of Texas concedes that as many as 50 Democratic seats remain in play. Among vulnerable incumbents targeted by the GOP: former Ways & Means Chairman Sam Gibbons of Florida, Democratic Caucus Chairman Vic Fazio of California, and Frost himself.

The Dems' best hope for winning back Congress, however, may lie with something they can't control: the economy. Polls show that voters would blame the Republican Congress for any economic downturn. The chance of recession doesn't seem like much for dispirited Hill Democrats to cling to, but at this point, a slump may be their only salvation.

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