• U.S.

The Days of Gridlock Come to an End

4 minute read

IN A YEAR WHEN INCUMBENT HAD BECOME SUCH A dirty word that one expected to hear it bleeped on TV talk shows, both parties were braced for a shake-out in Congress. It didn’t happen. While voters put 105 new faces in Congress, the most since 1949, both houses remained firmly in Democratic hands. Democrats gained one seat in the Senate, while Republicans may pick up just 9 in the House — far short of the 51 they needed to end 38 years of Democratic control. Ninety or more of the incoming 103rd Congress will be female, black or Hispanic, a record. But of 376 incumbents who survived the primaries, only 27 lost on election night.

For a while during the campaign, Republicans thought they could transform voter disgust with a Democrat-controlled Congress into solid gains for themselves. Democrats, hoping Bill Clinton’s coattails would hold down losses in the House while boosting their 57-43 Senate majority, came marginally closer to their goal. What is clear is that after years in which Republican Presidents faced off against Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill, legislative gridlock is over; the Democrats are in the driver’s seat. But fasten your seat belts: it is not yet clear which way the new majority will go.


Democrats may have retained their stronghold, and incumbents may still be around. But the stoops of Capitol Hill will have plenty of new welcome mats nonetheless. The notable number of black and Hispanic representatives is in large part a reflection of a strengthened Voting Rights Act, which scissored congressional districts to reflect more accurately America’s complexion. The shift prompted Congressional Black Caucus chairman Edolphus Towns to declare this an “unprecedented moment in American history.” In fact, a number of Southern states will send black members to the House for the first time since the turn of the century. Among the new faces: North Carolina Democrat Melvin Watt, a civil rights attorney, and Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat who managed to overcome the glaring taint of a 1989 House impeachment suffered during his tenure as a federal judge. To the north, one of the most talked- about new faces to join the House belongs to Illinois Democrat Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther whose radical history prompted his opponent, Jack Kemp conservative Jay Walker, to sneer, “He couldn’t get a job at K Mart or McDonald’s with his past record.” Among the incumbents to survive this election year’s vitriolic volleyball, sharp-tongued minority whip Newt Gingrich won a tough Georgia race against political neophyte Tony Center. Other household familiars heading back to the Hill include Speaker Tom Foley, who captured a healthy majority in his Washington State district, and House Armed Services Committee chair Les Aspin of Wisconsin. And who will be counted among the missing persons in the 103rd Congress? Don’t look for certain egregious abusers of the House bank: overdrafts took their toll on Ohio’s Mary Rose Oakar and Minnesota’s Gerry Sikorski, among others.


Contrary to most forecasts, this election was blustery but not disastrous for Senate incumbents. Voters were choosy in repudiating their Senators, sending home only three incumbents: Republicans John Seymour of California and Bob Kasten of Wisconsin and Democrat Terry Sanford of North Carolina. Fourteen members of the Democratic majority won re-election, as did 10 Republicans. In one of the most closely watched and emotion-laden races, Pennsylvanian Arlen Specter barely prevailed over Democrat Lynn Yeakel, a political tyro whose campaign got much of its energy from the outrage generated by Specter’s surly grilling of Anita Hill last fall. In Ohio formerly untouchable Democrat John Glenn, tainted by links to the savings and loan scandal, survived the race of his life against Republican Lieutenant Governor Mike DeWine. One of the nation’s most negative campaigns drove New York Republican Alfonse D’Amato, known because of his attention to constituent complaints as “Senator Pothole,” to spend $6.3 million in a successful attempt to outsleaze state attorney general Robert Abrams, whom he labeled a “bigot.” Arizona Republican John McCain, also sullied by the S&L mess, nevertheless breezed to re-election.

Yet beyond the minuscule numerical gain by the majority — one seat — the new Senate may move further to the left. Newcomers include liberal and moderate Democrats like Colorado rancher and Cheyenne tribe member Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the first-ever Native American Senator, Wisconsin maverick state senator Russ Feingold, and a forward platoon of the women’s movement: Illinois’ Carol Moseley Braun, Washington’s Patty Murray and California’s Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — four women who rode to victory on liberal issues such as pro-choice, workplace parity for women and civil rights.

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