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Democrats did it for 40 years in the House of Representatives. And, except for one six-year hiatus, they controlled the Senate for that long as well. Now Republicans, euphoric over their greater-than-expected gains in November, are wondering — some quietly, some aloud — whether they, too, might be able to institutionalize their hold on Congress. The GOP wants its turn at creating a permanent majority, one that will last far beyond its current 10-year reign and stretch well into the 21st century. But despite Republicans’ increased grip on both houses of Congress, they face obstacles to lasting power. The war in Iraq and an ambitious legislative agenda that plans to tackle two of the country’s most sacrosanct entitlements — Social Security and the tax code — could backfire, causing Republican losses in the next election. And the White House could harm the GOP’s congressional ambitions more than its Democratic opposition. “Look at what the president promised to take on,” notes one House GOP leadership staffer dryly: “Failure is the obvious problem.” On the other hand, consider the possibility — remote though it seems to be at the moment — that the Iraqi insurgency may soon be quelled, that U.S. casualties will be sharply cut, and that a Social Security plan and revamped tax code will actually be achieved, all of which would rebound to immense Republican benefit. And there is another factor at work, as powerful a force in solidifying Republican hegemony as any legislation or victory in the war on terror: the every-decade ritual of congressional redistricting, which occurs after each census and is designed to keep the population of all congressional districts exactly the same. The Republicans currently control more state legislatures and governors’ mansions than do Democrats. If that continues, they will be able to write more redistricting plans that by definition favor the GOP. All this leads to a definite optimism in the Republican leadership offices of the Capitol, an unrestrained exuberance among younger staff, and a quieter confidence among its more veteran policy-makers. “There’s a lot of intangibles, but for lack of a better word, there’s a bit of a bounce in everybody’s step,” says Eric Ueland, the chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and a man not given to hyperbole. Still, adds Ueland, “No one believes we’ve sealed the deal.” WOLF AT THE DOOR Indeed, despite a steadily growing Republican majority in both Houses over the last two elections, the GOP margin — 14 votes out of 435 in the House, and a 55-45-seat advantage in the Senate — is hardly enough to sustain the type of free-fall decline which the party in power often suffers during midterm elections. According to figures provided by the National Republican Congressional Committee, there have been four instances since Abraham Lincoln when Republican presidents have been re-elected to a second term: Ulysses Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and now George W. Bush. In each case, the second-term, mid-cycle elections were costly to House Republicans: They lost 96 House seats in 1874 under Grant; 48 in 1958 under Eisenhower; and five in 1986 under Ronald Reagan. “There’s no sense on the NRCC’s part that there’s a permanent majority,” says Carl Fortio, the National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman. “We don’t get paid to assume we keep the majority.” This, despite the fact that there were more Republicans elected to the House in 2004 — 232 — than in any time since the 80th Congress in 1947. Revamping Social Security and the tax code aren’t the only contentious issues that could divide not just Republican from Democrat but also the Republican majority itself. There’s an energy bill, the renewal of the Clean Air Act, and much-vaunted legal reforms, all of which have powerful constituencies working on either side. And there are other fissures within the party, including friction between centrist Republicans from the Midwest and Northeast, and fiscal conservatives, such as Oklahoma’s Ernest Istook Jr., who want to rein in government spending. Last month, Istook, who chairs the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee, purposely left out of the massive government spending bill earmarked projects for 21 House Republicans who had signed a letter calling for a doubling in funding for Amtrak. Istook, who will be serving his seventh term next year, has called Amtrak a “costly gamble.” Northeast Republicans — many of whom campaigned on their ability to bring home a slice of pork — were furious. Despite the GOP gains, the 109th Congress, which starts in January, may have more in common with its predecessor than not. That’s especially true in the Senate. “How much did the election change things as a practical matter?” wonders John Endean, president of the American Business Conference. “The majority in the rules-based House still has an iron grip, and in the Senate there are still less than 60 votes,” says Endean, whose group represents more than 60 CEOs of midsize growth companies. “But now the hourglass has been turned over, and within a year or two the president is a lame duck.” Adds the House GOP leadership staffer: “There are higher expectations now, mostly because we picked up Senate seats. The public thinks we can do something. They’re not convinced why we still need 60 votes.” Many Republicans think that 60-vote figure — the number of votes needed to invoke cloture, that is, cut off debate and hold a vote — may be too high to overcome, at least when it involves certain controversial judicial nominations. Last session, 10 such nominees were successfully filibustered by Democrats. That’s led to the possibility of a so-called nuclear option, which would eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominations. It’s a complicated procedural maneuver, and there are several ways to approach it. But it has Democrats up in arms. One possibility would be for a senator to send a resolution to the Senate desk asking for a majority vote for judicial nominations pursuant to the Constitution, and asking for an immediate vote on the matter without debate. If there is no debate, the votes of only 51 senators would be needed to pass the resolution. If the filibuster is removed for judicial nominations, predicted Jeff Berman, chief counsel to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), “it will blow the place to hell.” Berman, speaking at a Dec. 16 debate on the future of the Supreme Court, said Democrats would then likely use a variety of parliamentary maneuvers to slow the Senate’s work pace to a crawl. In any event, the betting is that there will almost certainly be at least one Supreme Court nomination next year, at which point, filibuster or not, the regular work of the Congress will come to an indefinite halt. And should that nomination bring with it an extended controversy over abortion rights, a final vote on a nominee could galvanize moderate women to vote Democratic in the next midterm elections. HEADING FOR THE FUTURE But for now, and probably for the next three elections, it’s a good bet that the GOP will keep its hold on both houses of Congress, predicts University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “It would take something big, a massive wave, a substantial earthquake,” to wipe out the Republican majority, at least through the redistricting of 2011, he says. And that’s where Democrats could seriously erode, or even undo, the Republican advantage. Democratic governors, notes Sabato, can veto redistricting plans they believe are too favorable to Republicans, or at least force a compromise in the way in which the nation’s 435 congressional districts are redrawn. That makes the 2006 gubernatorial races critical, Sabato says, “because governors elected in 2006 will have a good chance of being re-elected in 2010 and be able to affect redistricting in 2011.” The power of redistricting to affect the makeup of Congress is undeniable; witness the controversial Texas redistricting supported by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), which resulted in six new Republican seats and reshaped the Texas House delegation from 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans to 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats. The Texas victories accounted for nearly half the total GOP gains in the House. Before the 1960s, says Tim Storey, the redistricting specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, Colo., many congressional lines were never redrawn; as a result, some House districts could have two to three times the population of others. But in the 1960s, following the principle of one person, one vote, the Supreme Court declared that the population of congressional districts should be as equal as practicable. There have been numerous high court decisions dealing with the redistricting issue since then, but the Court has always held that there is nothing wrong with political gerrymandering itself, as long as certain other conditions apply. “At the end of the day,” says Storey, “as long as you don’t violate the Voting Rights Act, and you have one person, one vote, and respect historical districting guidelines, it’s still OK to draw redistricting plans to protect incumbents.” Republicans now control 20 state legislatures and Democrats 19, with another 10 states divided between two parties and Nebraska nonpartisan. And there are now just 21 Democratic governors (or 22, depending on who wins the Washington State recount). “There used to be strong Democratic majorities in most legislatures for 50 years until 2002, when for the first time Republicans surpassed them,” says Storey. “Now the legislatures are dead even.” These trends may change. They have before. For now, however, some Republicans at least are talking about their recent gains as a real chance to solve the country’s very real problems. “There’s a large national debt, unfunded pension liabilities, and interest on the national debt,” says Ueland, Bill Frist’s chief of staff, sitting in front of a wood-burning fire in the office of the Senate majority leader. “You have to chew down while you can.”

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