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Battle for the Senate

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CHRISTOPHER MORRIS/VII FOR TIME

TAKING AIM Bush is determined to see Saddamĺs threat eliminated

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For all the suggestions that peace and prosperity are at stake in this battle, the reality looks a little different. Bush is likely to win overwhelming bipartisan support for a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, and any true Social Security reform has already been buried under the nasdaq avalanche. Beyond that, it all comes down to the numbers: a 51-49 G.O.P. Senate would put Mississippi Republican Trent Lott in charge of the mood and message once again. That makes Enron hearings less likely and Homeland Security legislation more so. But if all the dead-heat races break for the Republicans, that would yield something closer to real legislative control. All it would take is the help of a few switch-hitting Democrats to give the G.O.P. the 60 votes needed to move legislation without risk of filibuster. With Orrin Hatch running the Judiciary Committee, the President's tort-reform measures will easily make it to the floor; if Richard Shelby takes over Banking from Paul Sarbanes, expanded federal oversight becomes less likely. Republican priorities like Bush's energy plan, missile defense, a partial-birth-abortion ban and continued tax cutting all stand a stronger chance of passage.

The most important impact may be the one nearest the hearts of many of Bush's core voters: the ability to clear the President's nominees through the Judiciary Committee. Judge Priscilla Owen, a Bush pick for the federal circuit court, probably would have won confirmation by the full Senate had the vote ever come to the floor; majority leader Tom Daschle made sure it never did. "For a lot of our base voters, this is the biggest issue out there," says an outside adviser to Bush's political team. "If we don't deliver, they won't work as hard for us [in 2004]." The stakes are still higher, because Bush will probably have a chance to fill one or two U.S. Supreme Court vacancies over the next two years.

The more cynical political operatives note that Republican control of both houses could come with a cost: Bush can't blame the Democrats for whatever voters might be unhappy about come 2004, whether it's a war gone bad, the Dow at 3000 or household health-care costs that rival mortgage payments. But that risk may be worth it if Republicans ultimately get to hold sway over all three branches of government for the first extended period since 1929. Of such unified power are New Deals and Great Societies made; only this time, it would bea Republican vision of what government can accomplish if all its engines work together.

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