Gains in House, Senate tighten Democratic hold

November 08, 1990|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Democratic majority in Congress marched away from Tuesday's elections with a near-stranglehold legislative power, ready to dominate Capitol Hill's agenda anew in January.

Democrats enhanced their 55-45 Senate majority by one and added nine seats to their lopsided 258-175 advantage in the House of Representatives to give them their largest contingent in more than a decade. More importantly, they did so after hammering away at the need for "fairness" in tax and budget issues, despite repeated attempts by Republicans to paint them as free-spending liberals determined to raise taxes.

Several Democrats said that Tuesday's results would make it easier for them to pursue their political agenda. They began talking of a surtax on those with incomes over $1 million a year, or of legislation requiring firms to grant leaves for to employees with newborn children -- both initiatives successfully opposed by the Bush administration during the past year.

"There are a lot of issues determined by one vote," said Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine. "What's really significant is the fact that a few months ago it was being written that we could lose two or even three seats in the Senate, and, instead, now we've gained one."

Other Democrats argued that the elections amounted to a referendum on White House domestic policies.

"Americans read George Bush's lips yesterday, and they made it clear they didn't like his message," said Representative Beryl Anthony Jr., D-Ark., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Several Democratic incumbents emerged from the polling places unscorched by voter fury.

The bow-tied Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., for example, trounced Republican Representative Lynn Martin 65 percent to 35 percent, even though he was once pegged as one of the most vulnerable incumbents. Similarly, Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., handily overcame the Republican challenger, Representative Claudine Schneider.

Nevertheless, local issues and local anger managed to catch a few incumbents of both parties. Most adversely affected by this tide were Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Republican Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

Mr. Bradley, who had been considered one of the most eligible Democratic candidates for the presidency in 1992, found himself embroiled in the contest of his life against a little-known, meagerly financed Republican, Christine Todd Whitman. Ms. Whitman, who had been the state utilities commissioner, exhorted voters to support her to register displeasure with state tax increases orchestrated by Democratic Gov. James J. Florio. About 48 percent of the electorate did just that.

The outspokenly conservative Mr. Gingrich, meanwhile, eked out victory of less than 1,000 votes over his challenger, Democrat David Worley. As the second-ranking Republican in the House, Mr. Gingrich had been in line to succeed the current minority leader, Illinois Representative Robert H. Michel, when he retires.

But Mr. Gingrich's climb up the House leadership may come to a halt unless he manages to win re-election by a more robust margin in 1992.

Indeed, the experiences of Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Bradley tend to bolster the argument of Republican strategists, who contend that Tuesday's outcomes bore no unifying mandate and that individual elections were determined by myriad local themes. Mr. Gingrich's district, for example, abuts Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, a hub for strike-plagued Eastern Airlines. Many former Eastern employees, disgruntled with a Bush administration policy toward the airline that was supported by Mr. Gingrich, apparently cast votes against him.

Instead of a mandate, Republicans say that the voters registered anger in this election, imperiling Democrats and Republicans alike.

"There was a formidable anti-government, anti-Congress drive sweeping the country," said Edward J. Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Many incumbents did see their re-election margins whittled from the percentages of the 1988 elections. House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., was re-elected with a 57 percent majority, down 6 percent from his tally of two years ago. Similarly, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., who snared 77 percent of the vote in 1988, won only 69 percent this time around.

Republicans continued to hold out hopes for two races still too close to call yesterday. As ballots were counted in California, Democratic Representatives Douglas H. Bosco and Jim Bates appeared to be trailing their Republican challengers by minuscule amounts. If the GOP took both seats, House Democrats would outnumber Republicans 268 to 167.

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