In Congress, A Vanishing Center

This year's big change: Staunch conservatives scored strategic victories

If you think you've seen bitter partisan feuding in recent years on Capitol Hill, fasten your seat belts. Despite a white-knuckle Presidential race and a relatively narrow congressional majority, Republican leaders show little inclination to reach out to embittered Democrats. "There is no incentive for either side to compromise," says Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report. "If Republicans can pass whatever they want, why talk to conservative Dems?"

Yes, there will be obligatory odes to bipartisanship. But the 2004 election has delivered Republicans to office who are even more conservative than their predecessors. That has Dems vowing to do everything they can to end a decade of GOP domination in the 2006 midterms.

The big change on Nov. 2: The armies of the Right won major Senate victories, the most symbolically important being the defeat of Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. The winner in that race, former Representative John Thune, will join five of his former House colleagues in moving up to the Senate.

All of these Republican victors came to Washington in the mid-to-late 1990s as strong disciples of the Gingrich Revolution. The result: While the GOP's margins remain slim in both chambers, the political center in Congress has shifted to the right. Two of the new senators, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, are replacing Democratic populists. The third, firebrand Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, compiled one of the most conservative voting records in Congress during three terms in the House of Representatives.

For both parties, the center will be a lonely place on Capitol Hill. On the House side, moderate Republicans Amo Houghton and Jack Quinn of New York opted against another run. And in the Senate, without retiring Democrats John Breaux of Louisiana and Bob Graham of Florida, there will be precious few Democratic moderates remaining. Centrist Republicans are hoping that incoming freshman Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) will help to fill the gap.

In the House, the polarization trend will be exacerbated by the gerrymandering of the Texas congressional map. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was the major architect of the scheme, which cost four incumbents their seats, including Representative Charles Stenholm (D-Tex.), the last of the conservative Southern Boll Weevil Democrats. The Texas map will set an example of egregious redistricting that could encourage similar efforts in other states by both parties. That's because redistricting is helping to create "incumbents [who] are virtually invincible," according to Cook's Walter. "Many districts got safer."


Still, Democratic strategists see a silver lining in the Texas debacle: It could take a toll on DeLay. Some of his associates in the redistricting scheme have been indicted by a Texas grand jury for alleged campaign-finance abuses, and their trials -- and the continuing probe in Austin -- could prove embarrassing to the Majority Leader, who earned back-to-back chastisements from the House ethics committee this fall. For now, though, DeLay is in charge, and the House will probably take the lead in pushing through Bush-agenda items such as Social Security reform.

The Senate, however, could prove more problematic, even with the addition of several conservative members. Though the Republicans increased their margin of control by four seats, they fell well short of the 60 votes it takes to overcome a Democratic filibuster. In addition, several prominent GOP lawmakers in the upper chamber -- including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (R-Va.) -- are weighing 2008 Presidential runs of their own, and blind loyalty to Bush could slow them down. They "want to carve out a separate identity," says John J. Pitney Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "If the President's poll numbers go down, they won't get points for being his faithful servant."

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, will have to anoint a new commander. Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is more moderate than Daschle, will probably take on the leadership mantle. But that doesn't mean the Dems will suddenly adopt a more conciliatory posture. With the departure of centrist Democrats, the caucus is leaning ever more to the Left. In particular, liberal stalwarts like Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), still angered by Vice-President Dick Cheney's obscenity-laced attack earlier in the year, are ready to unload on any Bush Supreme Court picks. These lions of the Left also "may not run for reelection," says Wendy J. Schiller, who teaches of political science at Brown University. "That could further embolden them to lead the charge on judicial picks."

What's more, the Democrats' biggest new star, Barack Obama of Illinois, has unabashedly advocated a left-of-center platform. Obama, who will be the sole African American member of the Senate, electrified the Democratic Convention last summer with his keynote address, and party leaders hope he will become a high-profile critic of conservative excess. With his election all but assured, Obama campaigned for other Democratic candidates, so he arrives in Washington with plenty of chits and a rock-star rep.

Democrats would like to think that Obama's victory heralds better days. But for now, Congress is in the hands of the Right. That gives President Bush a window of opportunity to push an ambitious agenda that could form the cornerstone of his legacy.

By Alexandra Starr in Washington

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