The GOP's Tighter Grip in Congress

Despite lacking an ultrasafe 60 seats in the Senate, Bush's ability to push an aggressive agenda is now greatly enhanced

By Howard Gleckman

It was quite a night for congressional Republicans. With a near-clean sweep of Southern contests, the GOP widened its Senate majority with control of at least 54 seats, and probably 55 when the counting is over. Republicans even solidified their hammerlock on the House by picking up a handful of seats. With Senator John Kerry having conceded and George W. Bush now reelected, the President will have a big leg up as he pushes what could well be an aggressive domestic agenda in 2005 and beyond.

But even the GOP victories on Nov. 2 won't guarantee success for Bush. While the Senate will be both more Republican and more conservative, the President still falls short of the reliable 60 votes he'll need to break filibusters and legislative logjams in the upper chamber. The GOP knocked off Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota but will now have to deal with the likely new leader, Nevada's Harry Reid, a crafty legislative warrior. Reid, in turn, would have to deal with a long list of Senate Republicans who'll have at least one eye on their own 2008 Presidential ambitions.

By contrast, life in the House will be a breeze for Bush. There, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) will continue to rule with an iron fist. But DeLay himself could be in for trouble. The self-styled "hammer" has been the subject of multiple ethics investigations over the past year. And he faces the threat of a criminal investigation in his home state for alleged campaign-finance irregularities. Without DeLay, the House is a very different, and less disciplined, place.


  The Senate, by contrast, is brimming with new personalities and some potential sharp elbows as veteran GOP lawmakers joust for the inside track in the 2008 Presidential race. GOP Senators John McCain of Arizona, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee have all been mentioned as White House wannabes. Frist has already announced he'll step down from his Senate seat in 2006, which could diminish his clout within his fractious caucus.

Among new members, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma are rockrib conservative on both social and economic issues. They'll deepen a growing split between an increasingly hard right GOP Senate caucus and a handful of embattled Republican moderates such as Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, George Voinovich of Ohio, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and, on some issues, McCain.

Moderates gained one ally, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who on many votes may be more middle-of-the-road than the man he replaces, erstwhile Democrat Zell Miller.


  For the Dems, the next two years will be a time of hanging on for dear life and, if they choose, of attempts at obstructionism. Their only real success stories from Election Day: moderate Ken Salazar of Colorado, who appeared to be clinging to victory on Nov. 3, and Barack Obama of Illinois, whom Democrats see as their next superstar. One other race, in Alaska, was still undecided early Wednesday morning.

The Dems to watch over the next couple of years will be a dwindling group of Senate centrists, including two women who are among the party's last Southern senators: Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Both are moderates in states that are trending strongly Republican. When it comes to votes over controversial conservative judges or Bush's almost certain efforts to continue to cut taxes or reform Social Security, will Lincoln and Landrieu stick with their party, or will they deliver key votes for the White House?

If they remain reliably Democratic -- at some risk to their own careers -- Bush will have a very tough job hitting the magic 60 votes he needs to push his agenda. And that would mean still more gridlock despite what appears to be strong Republican control of Washington.

Gleckman is senior Washington correspondent for BusinessWeek

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