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And the Winner Is ... Moderates on the Hill?

GOP freshmen races provide a clue to tenor of next Congress

Regardless of the outcome of the presidential race or the contest for control of Congress, the real winner Nov. 5 may be moderates in both parties.

That's because recent US political history has not been kind to committed right- and left-wingers. Democratic liberals were roundly rejected in 1994, when their party lost its majorities in Congress. The Republican right, for its part, has seen its image suffer since last year's government shutdown. It could become a less powerful voice even if the GOP keeps control of the House.

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"Both parties' ideological wings will have been chastised recently," says Charles Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report.

The result could mean a race by both parties to the center as they position themselves for the 1998 congressional midterm elections and the 2000 presidential elections, when no incumbent will be running in either party.

"[President] Clinton will be looking for his place in history and both parties will head back to the middle. That's good for the country," says Mr. Cook.

To assign a mandate, it is necessary to look, among other things, at which GOP freshmen win and which ones lose, Cook says. "Is it the ones who are manning the barricades or the more moderate freshmen...?" The "flavor" of the new Democrats coming in will also be a factor, he says.

According to Bernadette Budde, political analyst for BI-PAC, a business and industry political action committee, the real question is the makeup of the two parties' congressional delegations after the vote. If Democrats hold on to the open Democratic seats in the South that the Republicans are trying to grab, and moderate Senate candidates like Ben Nelson in Nebraska and Jill Docking in Kansas win, that will lead to more-moderate Democratic caucuses. Should GOP moderates such as Senate candidates William Weld in Massachusetts and Susan Collins in Maine win their races, that could help moderate Hill Republicans.

"From an analyst's standpoint, this will be an election that's not over when it's over," she says.

A more moderate Congress is likely to mean that any big new programs from the president, la health-care reform, wouldn't fly unless they can be paid for without raising taxes. It also probably means no more talk from GOP congressmen about "revolutions." (That's already changed: "Look at freshman rhetoric now versus about 20 months ago," Cook says.)

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Two analysts separately conclude that the post-election political environment could lead to passage of a balanced budget. "I think there could be a five- to six-month window where there will be a decent shot at a balanced budget," Cook says. Bob Balkin, political analyst for the PoliticsNow Web page, goes even further: He thinks a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution could be in the works. "The new Senate, regardless of who has the majority, will absolutely have more 'yes' votes for [the amendment]," he writes. "Every new GOP candidate is for it, as are most [Democrats]." In addition, he says, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tells him that most Democratic House challengers and open-seat candidates say they are for a balanced-budget amendment. (Republican incumbents voted almost 100 percent for the amendment in the last Congress.)

"If the Democrats take the House back, even the old bulls who are liberals will probably acknowledge that they need to move back to the center," Cook says. "The question is, will they or not."

Finally, Ken Rudin of The Hotline daily political report notes that if the GOP keeps control of both houses of Congress, it will be the first time a Democratic president and a Republican Congress have been reelected since 1916 under Woodrow Wilson. Should that happen, he says, "Perhaps the Republicans will keep the House for a long time to come."

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