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Democrats are growing ever more confident of their chances of retaking control of the House in 2000. They need a net gain of only five seats to cruise back into the majority, and a quick glance at the lopsided tally of open seats shows why the Dems are optimistic. So far, 19 GOP House lawmakers have announced plans to retire after 2000, vs. just five Democrats. Because it's tough to oust incumbents, the Dems seem to have the upper hand .
But don't be so sure, says Representative Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee -- the GOP's House campaign arm. Viewed district-by-district, the 2000 contests are still a dead heat, Davis argues. "The Democrats have three tough seats to hold, we probably have seven. Since we're up by five, that makes it about even," he says.
For starters, Davis aruges, "many of the open seats are pretty safe seats for us." For example, registered Republicans outnumber Demorats nearly 2-1 in California's 48th district, where Republican Representative Ronald Packard is retiring after serving 18 years. GOP contenders for the district, which includes parts of San Diego, Orange, and Riverside Counties, include car-alarm mogul Darrell Issa and the son of former Representative Robert K. Dornan.
Just as safe for Republicans is the seat of Representative Bill Barrett (R-Neb.), who also is stepping down next year. In 1996, GOP Presidential nominee Bob Dole took 59% of the votes in this rural district, which has been represented by Republicans for all but 2 of the last 57 years. Davis is also confident of holding onto the seats of retiring Representatives Matt Salmon (Ariz.), Bill Goodling (Pa.), Charles T. Canady (Fla.), and Bill Archer (Tex.). All are long-time GOP strongholds.
But Davis concedes that a few GOP open seats are up for grabs. The endangered list includes Washington's Second District, currently held by Republican Representative Jack Metcalf, who is stepping down after pledging to serve no more than six years. This is a tossup district that backed President Clinton in 1996. And Republicans face a bruising primary. "It's a district that gives us some concern," says Davis. He's similarly worried about seats held by incumbent Representatives Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Edward Porter (Ill.), and Bill McCollum (Fla.) that have attracted strong Democratic candidates.
But Davis is optimistic about GOP chances for picking up at least three Democratic open seats. The race to succeed Representative Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is running for Senate, is looking like a tossup. And the Republicans are fielding strong contenders for the seats of retiring Democratic Representatives Ron Klink (Pa.) and Bob Wise (W.Va.).
But even if Republicans hang onto the House in 2000, retirements will remain a problem. That's because of GOP-imposed rules that require Republican House committee and subcommittee chairs to serve no more than six years. There's no glamor in staying in Congress if you're a senior member, unless you can wield some power and influence.
The term limit on panel chairs was pushed through in 1995 by ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich in an effort to curb the power of the chairmen. A bunch of committee chairs tried to get GOP leaders to ditch the rule earlier this year, but the effort sputtered when younger members protested.
Amy Borrus in Washington EDITED BY DOUGLAS HARBRECHT
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