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1998 In Review: U.S. Politics--The Voters Fooled The Experts

Washington, 22 December 1998 (RFE/RL) - In the United States, many commentators expected early on that 1998 would be the year the Republican Party took unchallenged control of the nation's political agenda while pushing President Bill Clinton into a corner he couldn't fight his way out of.

Instead, American voters mostly ignored the Republican Party's ideological message, sending some Republican legislators home from Washington for good and generating a power struggle at the upper levels of the party leadership.

As the Republicans pushed ahead in December with impeachment proceedings against Clinton --a Democrat-- an emotional debate in the House of Representatives led to even more disarray among the party's congressional leaders.

Before the election of Nov. 3, the Republicans held a 228-206 majority over the Democrats in the 435-member House --there is one independent member who usually votes with the Democrats. In the 100-member Senate, the Republican lead over the Democrats was 55-45.

Political commentators agreed that there was not much interest in the electorate in 1998 and most expected little drama. History favors incumbents in U.S. elections. In addition, since the election of 1938, the political party of the president has lost seats in every mid-term election -- that is, the election that comes at the middle point of a president's four-year term.

In the previous mid-term election in 1994, President Clinton's party lost 52 seats and control of the House for the first time in 40 years. They also lost control of the Senate.

This year, experts were predicting gains of as few as eight or as many as 20 seats in the House for the Republicans. In the Senate, the Republicans were hoping to gain at least three and possibly five.

However, on Nov. 4, Republicans awoke to find that their majority had been trimmed by five votes in the House, and there were no changes in the arithmetic in the Senate.

The same experts who had predicted a larger Republican majority in the House now admitted that U.S. voters had ignored the political wisdom of Washington.

The disappointing showing by the Republicans in Congress led to some rapid and unexpected changes in the party's congressional leadership. Within days of the election, a number of party members made it clear they would no longer support the leadership of Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who had been Speaker of the House.

The Speaker's post has often been described as the second most powerful political position in Washington after the presidency. The Speaker, who is almost always from the majority party, runs the House of Representatives and is, according to the U.S. Constitution, second in line for succession to the presidency after the vice president.

Gingrich was viewed by many of his colleagues as having become ineffective and too willing to compromise with President Clinton and the Democrats. Congressman Robert Livingston of Louisiana -- who would be the star of another drama before the end of the yea r-- announced that he would challenge Gingrich for the speaker's job.

That was enough for Gingich. He announced that he would not only step aside as speaker, but would also retire from the House six months into the new session.

Livingston had a lot of support. He had been the chairman of the important Appropriations Committee, which exercises great influence over the U.S. government budget. He was respected by Democrats as well as Republicans and he was viewed as a man who would build consensus rather than fight ideological battles over legislation.

Ultimately, the same process that led the House to impeach Clinton on Dec. 19 also claimed Livingston as a victim.

The drive to impeach Clinton began back in January when charges spread that Clinton had lied while under a legal oath in an effort to conceal a sexual relationship he had had with a former White House assistant named Monica Lewinsky.

By early December, the House had prepared charges of misconduct --called articles of impeachment-- against Clinton that threatened his presidency. Debate on whether to impeach Clinton and force him to stand trial in the U.S. Senate began on Dec. 18.

The next day, shortly before the voting on impeachment was to start, Livingston came to the floor of the House and spoke publicly of his own infidelity to his wife. He apologized to her and to political colleagues and then made an announcement that stunned other house members:

"I must set the example that I hope President Clinton will follow. I will not stand for Speaker of the House on January 6," he said.

Livingston went on to say that, like Gingrich, he would leave Congress entirely shortly after the new session begins in January.

All of this occurred in the middle of the impeachment debate and the U.S.-British military campaign against Iraq. Republicans, and even Clinton, unsuccessfully urged Livingston to reconsider.

Soon after, the House approved two articles of impeachment against Clinton. He now faces a trial early next year in the upper house, the Senate. He could be removed from office with a two-thirds vote of its members. That would require the support of at least 12 of the chamber's 45 Democrats.

In the House, Livingston's dramatic announcement left the Republicans scrambling to find someone to replace him. They settled on Congressman Dennis Hastert of Illinois, a popular but not well-known member who has served 12 years in the House. His selection is expected to be ratified by the entire House when it convenes in the first week of January.