Prospects appear dim for Democrats to recapture Senate

March 30, 1995|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Another veteran Democratic senator, Alabama's Howell Heflin, announced yesterday that he was quitting Congress in 1996, further dimming Democratic hopes of taking back the Senate in next year's election.

He is the sixth Democratic senator to switch parties or announce his retirement since the Republican landslide in November that gave the GOP control of the chamber. Republicans now enjoy a 54-46 advantage in the Senate and stand a strong chance of keeping their majority in 1996, according to officials in both parties.

"A long shot just got longer," Charles Cook, a congressional campaign analyst, remarked of the Democrats' hopes for regaining the Senate.

Indeed, Democratic campaign officials say privately that Republicans could pick up enough seats next year to build a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats. Because of Senate rules, it often takes such a supermajority to win approval of controversial measures.

Mr. Heflin's announcement was not totally unexpected. Though he would have been favored to win re-election, the 73-year-old senator had a heart pacemaker installed last summer and was said to have been deeply affected by the death last month of his longtime campaign manager.

"There are numerous factors that have entered into my decision," he said in a speech on the Senate floor, declining to give details.

A member of the Senate since 1979, Mr. Heflin had told friends recently that he was not enjoying his service as a member of the minority party in the Senate.

Unlike House Democrats, who lost their majority status for the first time in 40 years last fall, Senate Democrats endured six years of relative powerlessness during Ronald Reagan's presidency, when Republicans controlled the Senate.

"The last time, there was a crusade to keep Reagan from going too far," said Harrison Hickman, a pollster who advises several Democratic senators. "I think that sense of crusade is lost now."

Mr. Cook, the campaign analyst, said he is "waiting for the other shoe to drop in the House." Though there has not been a wave of Democratic retirements there, "I strongly suspect that the same thing is going to happen," he said.

Four incumbent Democratic senators -- Paul Simon of Illinois, J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, Jim Exon of Nebraska and Mr. Heflin -- have announced their retirements. Two others, Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, have jumped to the GOP.

Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, recently listed four Democratic incumbents whose terms expire in 1996 as potential retirees: Mr. Heflin, 76-year-old Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, David Pryor of Arkansas and Sam Nunn of Georgia.

Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who narrowly avoided defeat in 1990, is also considered a question mark. Only one Republican, Sen. Hank Brown of Colorado, has said he will not run for re-election next year.

Republicans stand a good chance of gaining the four seats being vacated by Democrats. In addition, incumbent Democratic Sens. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Max Baucus of Montana are considered highly vulnerable. The best chance for a Democratic pickup appears to be the Republican open seat in Colorado.

Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called Mr. Heflin's retirement "one more indication that the Democratic Party may face another debacle in 1996." He said it "clearly demonstrates that Senate Democrats up for re-election in 1996 are afraid to run with President Clinton leading the ticket."

A quartet of Alabama congressmen are among those being mentioned as potential candidates for the Heflin seat. They include Republican Reps. Spencer Bachus and Terry Everett, both second termers, and Democratic Reps. Glen Browder and Robert E. "Bud" Cramer.

Mr. Heflin, a folksy former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, is a legendary storyteller and has a reputation as a moderate on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he often has been a swing vote. He cast a crucial vote that helped defeat the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork and opposed the confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas.

He has not gained a reputation as a leader in the Senate, however. He was a lackluster member of the Iran-contra committee and, during two terms as chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, he was criticized for playing politics with his handling of the Keating Five savings and loan investigation.

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