Washington — The election is not yet over, so the Washington political maneuvering is heating up in some strange ways. The prospect of a Bush presidency together with a Republican-led Congress offers both peril and opportunity for the Grand Old Party. George W. Bush campaigned as a "compassionate conservative," dedicated to restoring the GOP's centrist credentials and rescuing it from the grip of the far right. Yet in the party's congressional leadership elections, conservative activists with roots in the Gingrich Revolution were re-elected, while bids from more moderate members in the Senate were turned back.
"I've been waiting all my life to have a Republican president and a Republican Congress," exulted Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. Never mind that the feisty Gramm was first elected to Congress as a Democrat. With control of both branches of government, however shaky, he and other conservative stalwarts believe that cherished Republican goals can be accomplished.
All that sunny talk about bipartisanship falls on deaf ears among House conservatives. Majority Whip Tom DeLay doesn't think the presidential election was a tie. He says the Republicans established themselves as the majority party, and he'll act on that mandate. Known as "The Hammer," DeLay doesn't seem chastened by the closeness of the election. "We'll write conservative bills and ask the Democrats to participate," he said.
With friends like these, Bush could have a tough time delivering on his promise to be "a uniter, not a divider." Bush's best course might be to marginalize DeLay and cultivate moderates.
Democrats John Breaux and Charles Stenholm are not household names, but they would be in a Bush administration. Centrist Democrats, they hold the keys to victory for Bush in terms of reaching out and building coalitions. Louisiana Sen. Breaux is famous for once saying, "I can't be bought, but I can be rented." Texas Rep. Stenholm was one of a handful of Democrats who voted to impeach President Clinton. The two lawmakers together could be a bridge to Democrats in a Bush administration.
Conversely, if Vice President Gore were to win, they could serve as his emissaries to the Republican opposition.
Traditionally, the Senate acts as a brake on the more impulsive House. If Bush wins, the Senate will be divided exactly in half, with 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, and gridlock is likely. The Republicans, angling for some slight advantage, have speculated that Breaux could join a Bush administration as Energy Secretary. Underlying this bipartisan generosity is the knowledge that Louisiana's Republican governor would appoint a Republican to replace Breaux and give the GOP a 51-seat edge.
In an election this closely contested, a coalition government sounds appealing. But Republicans who have been frozen out of the White House for eight years will find it hard to share power with Democrats. And Democrats will be reluctant to take appointments in a Bush administration, especially if a Bush victory is seen as tainted by a reluctance to fully count the votes in Florida.
Political correspondent Eleanor Clift contributed to this column.