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By SARA FRITZ
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000
WASHINGTON -- As representatives of the people, members of Congress are supposed to be sensitive to public opinion -- and they certainly take that obligation seriously. Even the slightest shift in the polls often causes them to reconsider their positions.
Therefore, at a time when the American public seems to be growing increasingly weary of the endless ballot recounts and legal arguments in Florida, the question arises: Why do Al Gore's Democratic supporters in Congress seem so relaxed? Are they worried about upsetting their constituents if they continue to back Gore?
Perhaps the biggest reason for a lack of anxiety among congressional Democrats is they know that if Al Gore loses, it could actually be good for them -- perhaps even better than if he wins.
Now that Democrats are just a few votes away from gaining a majority in the House and Senate, their party would likely have a better chance of taking control of Congress in the 2002 election if Bush sits in the White House. That's because history shows the party out of power usually does better in the midterm election.
So if Bush proves to be the winner of the presidential election, Democrats hope it will help them affect a congressional coup d'etat similar to that which the Republicans staged in 1994 -- two years after Democrat Bill Clinton was elected to the White House.
"Democrats on the Hill will win either way," observed David Winston, a Republican pollster and adviser to the House Republican leadership. "They are telling themselves, "If we don't get Gore, we'll win the Congress.' "
Still, the patience of the Democrats is not endless.
In fact, Gore campaign manager William Daley is said to have spent hours on the telephone during the past week, successfully persuading members of his party to continue to show solidarity toward Gore. Without Daley's intervention, some Democrats might have come forward calling on Gore to concede.
About 20 conservative House Democrats, the so-called Blue Dogs, met Tuesday to discuss their strategy. They decided to continue to support Gore, but at the same time they chose to warn him that time is running out.
Of course, there have been a few defectors.
The first Democrat to break from the pack was was Rep. Julia Carson of Indiana, who called on Gore a week ago to forget it. She told the Indianapolis Star said she was simply being realistic. "I don't hold out much hope in the outcome, but I do know miracles do exist."
The media has had no trouble keeping track of these Gore defectors. It seems that every time a Democrat in Congress makes a statement suggesting that Gore is fighting a losing battle, the Bush campaign issues a news release about it.
Republicans also took steps to put extra pressure on Democrats to walk away from Gore. The Republican National Committee also e-mailed its loyal supporters Tuesday, imploring them: "If you believe this election should end and that endless lawsuits are not good for our country, please call your congressman and senator, regardless of their party affiliation and tell them that Al Gore should concede."
The Democrats most likely to defect are those representing states or districts that Bush won. Among them was Rep. Gene Taylor, a Mississippi Democrat. "I will vote the way the majority of my constituents in 5th Congressional District voted," Taylor announced. "And in this case, Gov. Bush carried the district."
Another Democrat whose state voted overwhelmingly for Bush, Max Baucus of Montana, made it clear that he is running out of patience -- even though he continued to support Gore. Baucus said the case needs to be resolved as soon as possible after the U.S. Supreme Court rules.
"The clock is ticking," Baucus said. "It's imperative that we have a resolution very soon."
The political advantage that Democrats would have with Bush in the White House can hardly be overstated.
For at least the next two years, the Republican leadership would be forced to court Democrats to support the administration's proposals. The GOP's advantage will be far too narrow for Republicans to act decisively without the help of Democrats.
Furthermore, there would be one more Democrat in the Senate -- Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Gore's running mate -- if the Democratic ticket loses. If Lieberman were to become vice president, instead, his seat would be filled with a Republican chosen by GOP Connecticut Gov. John Roland. His departure would allow the number of Democratic-controlled seats in the Senate to drop from 50 to 49.
With Bush in the White House, the Democrats' advantage in the 2002 election is beyond question. Of the 24 midterm congressional elections held in the 20th century, the party that did not control the White House picked up seats in 22 of them.
Exactly why the out-of-power party does better in the midterm elections is a matter of hot debate among political scientists. But the most widely accepted reason is that voters see it as a restraint on the power of the president.
Yet even though Democrats find themselves in a win-win situation, don't expect them to admit it. When asked, they will tell you they want nothing less than a complete victory for Gore.