After presidential race decided, U.S. Congress becomes next political show

Erin Ghere

When the new U.S. Congress assembles in January, it will reflect a Hollywood movie script.
There will be a former first lady, a dead governor’s wife, a dozen or so lawmakers who won elections by less than 500 votes and maybe even a man who was inches away from being the country’s vice president.
Then, the story line: The incoming president — whoever it may be — will most likely face a Senate split exactly down the middle and a U.S. House with one of the smallest Republican majorities in history, a margin of only nine members.
Although the House leadership will be easy to figure out, senators can look forward to threats, negotiations and fights to decide who their leadership should be, seeing there is no majority.
With a presidential victory which has yet to be decided almost one month after Election Day, the 2000 election left the country with a bizarre political situation all the way around.
University political science professor Steve Smith said an exact split in the Senate has not happened since 1881. And Hillary Rodham Clinton, among other interesting personalities, will make history as the first former first lady to hold a Senate seat.
“There will be an interesting cast of characters in the Senate,” Smith joked.
The Cast
Clinton will represent New York, a state she recently moved to. But, unlike almost all of her colleagues, Clinton will have a Secret Service detail.
Like other former first ladies, Clinton is entitled to a Secret Service detail for life. This protection is not routine for most political figures, the service has also guarded members of Congress running for president and vice president.
Individual members are rarely guarded, although from time to time some are, such as Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
The first lady, along with all other freshman senators, attended orientation yesterday and today.
Clinton will sit with 10 other senators-elect, including New Jersey’s Jon Corzine and Minnesota’s Mark Dayton — who both spent millions to win their elections — and Missouri’s Jean Carnahan, who was appointed to the seat after her dead husband won the election.
Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan was killed in a plane crash several weeks before the election, but his name remained on the ballot and he defeated Republican incumbent John Ashcroft by more than 46,000 votes.
“We had fought so much for the things that he believed in and I didn’t want to see them die with that plane crash,” Carnahan’s wife said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey which will air Dec. 28, according to The Associated Press.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., is the lynchpin. Although he ran as Vice President Al Gore’s running mate, he also ran for re-election in the Senate and won.
If Gore loses — which became more likely over the weekend after several significant courtroom losses — Lieberman will be the 50th Democrat. If Gore wins, Lieberman will forfeit his seat and Connecticut’s Republican governor will most likely appoint a member of his own party to create a 51-49 Republican majority.
Although it has a less interesting cast, the U.S. House will welcome 41 new members at the beginning of January, pending a few recounts, with 28 Republicans and 13 Democrats.
One of those recounts is taking place in Minnesota’s 2nd District, where Republican Mark Kennedy defeated incumbent Democratic Rep. David Minge by only 155 votes.
The Plot
The newly-elected Congress is more closely divided than any other since Dwight Eisenhower was president in the 1950s. Inevitably, gridlock could occur.
Both chambers could dissolve into petty partisanship and accomplish nothing, Smith said, or moderate, bipartisan coalitions could form in order to pass some legislation. The latter would frustrate extremists on either side, he said, but gridlock would get little legislation passed.
There will be constant tension for the members of Congress, Smith said, with the strings of their political parties, constituents and the realities of passing legislation all pulling them in different directions.
One member of the Minnesota delegation who could prove pivotal is Democratic Rep. Colin Peterson, who represents northwestern Minnesota. Smith said he could be a key participant in moderate coalitions.
At the same time, Minnesota Democratic Sens. Dayton and Paul Wellstone could be “bombthrowers” from the left on moderate coalitions if the moderates do not satisfy the congressional liberals, Smith said.
The new members of Minnesota’s delegation — Betty McCollum, Kennedy and Dayton — are in unique positions.
Democrat McCollum, who was elected to the late Rep. Bruce Vento’s seat representing the St. Paul area, won a remarkable victory, Smith said. Smith added she should be confident of re-election in two years. That gives her the freedom to start work on a set of legislative priorities, through committee assignments and legislative interests.
But as a junior member of the state’s delegation in the minority party in the House, her accomplishments could be restricted.
Republican Kennedy, who beat incumbent Minge in one of only a handful of elections around the country being re-counted, faces a much tougher electoral position.
And if Texas Gov. George Bush is elected, Kennedy’s electoral future could get dimmer. The president’s party normally loses seats during mid-term elections. Therefore, Kennedy will have to spend much of his two years shoring up electoral support, possibly by sitting on the House agriculture committee, Smith said.
Dayton, however, could be a powerful force for Minnesota in the Senate. He has already showed signs that he will avoid mistakes outgoing Republican Sen. Rod Grams made in his first year, Smith said. Dayton has shown interest in the appropriations and agriculture committees — both places he could do favors and affect legislation for those back home. Grams instead went immediately for tax committees.
Dayton and the veteran Wellstone share many policy views, but Smith predicts Wellstone will continue to speak out on national issues, while Dayton will work on issues pertinent to Minnesota.
The Suspense
The story’s suspense, and eventual climax, will come from the Senate.
With a 50-50 split, Senate leadership is up in the air. Traditionally, the majority party chooses the Senate’s leadership, but without a majority, the decision will be left to negotiations and threats, Smith said.
Democratic leader Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota has suggested joint leadership. But the Republican leaders have balked at the idea. Before this election, Republicans held the majority 54-46.
Republicans argue that if Bush wins the presidency, vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney would become president of the Senate and Republicans would have a majority. But Democrats contest that idea.
Both sides have incentives to stick to their arguments, but also have limits, Smith said.
Democrats can threaten to filibuster, or essentially tie up debate until a bill is killed, during the resolutions that set up the senate committees. But they would have to judge the point where the public would get fed up with the gridlock.
Republicans, on the other hand, can argue that Cheney makes a majority. But if talks become deadlocked, Bush might tell Republican leadership to give in so he can begin getting his legislation passed.
“It’s a game of chicken,” Smith said. “Who is going to give in first?”
The only other time there has been a tie in the Senate was in 1881, but back then there was no formal recognition of leadership. So there is no precedent for senators to look to.
The other wrench in the program is the timing of Congress’ return. The new Congress will convene on Jan. 3.
President Clinton is still in office for another 17 days after that, and Gore is still the president of the Senate for that time. He would undoubtedly recognize Daschle as the Senate majority leader, but if Cheney comes into office, he would recognize Republican leader Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott.
This transition of power could further complicate issues of Senate leadership.
Even when the presidential saga is through, the curtain will not close on the political dramas.

Erin Ghere welcomes comments at [email protected]