WASHINGTON -- If Democrats prevail in the cliffhanger race for control of the Congress, committee chairmanships would go to the party's leading liberals -- lawmakers who have been among the most fierce opponents of the Republican government-shrinking agenda of the past two years.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and his Senate counterpart, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, have declared that their two years out of power has taught Democrats that they must adopt a more centrist approach if they regain power.
Republicans, meanwhile, are warning of dire consequences if the Democrats take over.
The two Democratic leaders have outlined a "families first" agenda that retains the Republican goal of balancing the budget by 2002 while attempting to solve social and economic problems with modest changes, such as tuition tax credits, pension reforms and expanded health insurance coverage for children.
"This is an agenda all our conservatives, our moderates and our liberals feel comfortable with," said Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, who is active in the party's leadership. "Our chairmen and everyone else understands that if we regain control this year, then lose it again in 1998, we are going to be out of power for a very, very long time."
House Speaker Newt Gingrich predicted in a recent television interview that a Democratic Congress would devote itself to "paying off the unions, paying off the trial lawyers, paying off the foreign influences, raising taxes, building government bureaucracies, and covering up Clinton administration conspiracies."
The margin of control is expected to be slender, or could be split, with the Democrats returning to power in the House and Republicans keeping the Senate. In such a case, almost nothing could be accomplished in Congress without a bipartisan consensus.
Even so, many of the would-be Democratic chairmen are longtime veterans with priorities of their own that go well past the modest goals set out by their party leaders.
For example, New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a 13-term veteran from Harlem who could take over the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee from Bill Archer, a 13-term veteran from Houston, said he sees no need for a dramatic conversion.
Rangel believes in economic and social activism, such as granting tax breaks to businesses to help the inner-city poor find jobs, and feels confident that he can find Republican votes to pass such measures, as he has in the past.
"It just seems to me that what we've learned is that the Democrats have to be more tolerant toward each other," Rangel said. "And after what happened to the Republicans when they tried and failed to get their extreme ideas through, I would like to think that they would want to go about it a different way themselves."
Gephardt, who stands to become House speaker if Democrats recapture the majority, is determined that the chairmen realize that they are answerable to the full Democratic membership and cannot run their committees like fiefdoms.
But committee chairmen historically have held awesome power in the Congress to shape legislation, hold hearings and direct inquiries. Not even Gingrich, who exercised a great deal of control as speaker, was able to completely keep his committee chairmen in check.
"Newt had an advantage because none of his chairman had ever been in power before, and even they were becoming more decentralized at the end," said Roger Davidson, a congressional scholar at the University of Maryland. "These Democrats know what it's like to be chairman; they aren't going to change."
The contrast between possible Democratic and Republican committee chairmen is particularly striking in the House, where most analysts have declared the election a toss-up.
For example, David R. Obey, a Wisconsin liberal, could take over the House Appropriations Committee from Louisiana's Robert L. Livingston, who led the GOP drive to shrink the government.
Obey would limit policy-making and return the committee to its traditional task of allocating spending according to broad targets set by the budget committee, said Scott Lilly, Democratic staff director for the House Appropriations Committee.
Rep. George Miller of California, one of his party's leading advocates of environmental protection, could take control of the Natural Resources Committee from Alaska's Don Young, who oversaw an attempt to void many of the protections on the books.
Miller is committed to a review of those protections, such as the Endangered Species Act, but wants to make them more efficient, rather than eliminate them, says his spokesman, Danny Weiss.