When Americans cast their votes for Congress tomorrow, they will decide whether the Democrats or Republicans will control the country's legislative agenda. And that, in turn, will have a profound effect on the final two years of President George W. Bush's first term in office.
Washington, 4 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Americans will vote tomorrow to choose a new Congress, which could dramatically affect President George W. Bush's agenda during the next two years.
Bush already is pursuing a war on international terrorism, but the president is also pushing an ambitious domestic agenda -- including cutting taxes -- for which he needs the cooperation of Congress.
The Senate is now controlled by the Democratic Party, but only by the slimmest majority. The Senate, which has 100 seats, now includes 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and one independent who usually votes with the Democrats.
Thirty-three of the Senate seats will be contested tomorrow. If the Democrats lose just one seat to a Republican they will lose control of the chamber because Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, also serves a president of the Senate and is empowered to break any tie votes.
The House, meanwhile, is controlled by the Republicans -- again by a very slight majority. The House has 435 seats, including 222 Republicans, 211 Democrats, and two independents. Because of the 11-seat difference between the two major parties, a net gain of six seats by the Democrats would give them control of the House. All House seats are contested every two years.
There are many important national issues facing Americans as they prepare to vote. They include the war on terrorism, a possible war with Iraq, the state of the economy, and the often high cost of medical care.
But analysts say that no national issue appears to be dominating the campaign. Instead, they say, a wide variety of local and regional issues seem to concern voters this year.
Bill Frenzel (R-Minnesota), a former member of the House of Representatives, told RFE/RL that, in any case, voters often choose a candidate based on his or her personal qualities -- rather than the candidate's stand on an issue. "In the United States, the voter is always looking for someone to represent [him] personally. And often the personal characteristics or the judgmental abilities of the candidate will be more important than the positions he takes on given issues."
Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, agreed that Americans are less interested in national issues than local ones. But he said voters are often confused about who is responsible for addressing local and national concerns: "Voters do not distinguish between and among the various layers of government. They expect congressmen [for example] to deal with [local issues like] street lights that are [not functioning], and they expect their local government officials to take stands on [national issues like] abortion."
With no national issues dominating the debate, analysts say it's difficult to predict who will win tomorrow's vote. But they say a shift in the House would probably have a greater impact than a shift in the Senate. This is because the House is responsible for legislation dealing with how the federal government appropriates money.
Frenzel explained it this way: "Under the constitution, the House has the responsibility to initiate all money bills. The president could get many of his tax-reform ideas enacted into law only because the House, which supported him [on taxes], was there to move the bills first. Had the bills originated in the Senate, they may never have gotten out and wouldn't have seen the light of day."
Frenzel said if the Democrats take control of the House and maintain control of the Senate, they will probably be able to keep Bush from realizing most of his domestic agenda, including the president's goal of reducing federal taxes.
Sabato added that if the Democrats end up with control of both chambers of Congress, Bush will probably shift his focus from domestic to foreign policy. "If the Democrats gained control of both houses [of Congress], I think that would effectively be the end of the Bush presidency on the domestic side. There would simply be [no bills] passed that Bush could sign of substance, and almost nothing Bush proposed would be passed. So he would focus almost entirely on foreign policy, much as his father did."
On the other hand, if Republicans maintain control of the House and gain control of the Senate, Bush would have the mandate he wants.
But analysts say that only an overwhelming majority in the Senate would ensure true control, and neither party is likely to win such a majority this year.
Gaining a strong majority in the Senate is important because of a Senate practice known as the "filibuster." Senate rules allow a senator to speak for as long as he wants in favor of or against a bill. A senator who opposes a measure, for example, can delay action on that bill indefinitely simply by talking and talking.
The only way to stop a filibuster is to vote to end debate, and that vote requires support of at least 60 percent of the Senate, or 60 of the 100 members.
Sabato described the process this way: "In order to silence a member of the minority party, the majority party has to have 60 of the 100 senators voting in favor of cutting off debate. Otherwise, no vote is taken and a bill is generally killed. Whichever party controls the Senate [after tomorrow's election] will have 51 or 52 seats at most. Therefore the Senate will be truly controlled by no one."
Sabato said, paradoxically, Bush might not be all that disappointed if the Senate remains under Democratic control: "You can win by losing and lose by winning. If Bush's [Republican Party] gets control of Congress completely, [Bush] will be responsible for everything that happens between now and the 2004 elections. As long as [the] Democrats are at least nominally in charge of the Senate, Bush has someone to blame [for anything that goes wrong]. In American politics, it is very useful to have someone to blame."
Voters in 36 states will also be choosing governors. Of the country's 50 governors, 27 are Republicans, 21 are Democrats, and two are independents. Polls show the Democrats are running competitively in many of this year's races, and analysts say the two parties may end up with an even split of governors after tomorrow's vote.
Governors often do not deal in national issues, but because they are the chief executives of states, they are often seen as potential presidents. Indeed, four of the previous five presidents were once governors: Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Ronald Reagan of California, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, and Bush himself, who was the governor of Texas.
If the presidents of the future are today's governors, then the outcome of tomorrow's gubernatorial elections will at least provide material for speculation about who may lead the United States in coming years.