Republicans Win, Environment Loses in 2002

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 6, 2002 (ENS) - With the 2002 elections leaving both the House and the Senate in Republican hands, control of crucial environmental committees will also rest with the GOP, along with the power to dictate the flow of environmental legislation through Congress. However, the split between the two major political parties remains close enough to ensure that the Bush administration will have difficulty advancing a partisan agenda.

With almost every race now decided, the Republicans have gained at least four seats in the House, for a total of 227 to the Democrat's new count of 205 House seats. In the Senate, the Democrats appear to have lost four seats, including that of the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, giving the Republicans a five vote majority with two races still undecided.


In winning a Senate seat in Missouri, Jim Talent handed control of the Senate to the Republican Party as of today. (Photo courtesy House Small Business Committee)
The margins of majority leadership in both houses are too close to give the Republicans an easy path to force through the Bush agenda, however. In the Senate, for example, the Republicans are still well short of the 60 votes needed to end a Democratic filibuster, giving the Democrats at least one political tool to thwart the passage of controversial legislation.

But the Democrats have lost their most important leverage in Congress - control of Senate committees. When the newly elected Senators take office in January, new chairs will be selected for every Senate committee by the Republican majority.

The committee chairs control the introduction of legislation, debate of new bills, the timing of votes and the forwarding of bills to the full Senate. The Democrats have held these spots since May 2001, when Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords changed his party allegiance from Republican to Independent, handing Senate Democrats a slim, one vote majority.

Largely through strategic use of Senate committee powers, the Democrats have since blocked passage of a variety of Bush administration measures, including plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and proposals to eliminate most environmental oversight of national forest fire prevention projects.


Republican Representative John Thune is still not sure whether he has won a Senate seat; he is trailing Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson by less than 1,000 votes. (Photo courtesy Office of Representative Thune)
But all that is about to change, perhaps as early as next week, when Congress returns from its fall hiatus. Under Missouri law, just elected Senator Jim Talent, a Republican, can be sworn in immediately, replacing Democrat Jean Carnahan who was chosen in a special election to complete the term of her late husband, former governor Mel Carnahan.

That would give Republicans control of the Senate for the remainder of the lame duck session, in which the majority of the crucial spending bills for fiscal year 2003 must still be debated and passed.

New chairs for both House and Senate committees have not yet been selected, though in many cases, the current senior Republican in each committee will be named as chair.


Long time Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski will leave that position for the governor's mansion. (Photo courtesy Alaska State Legislature’s Majority Coalition)
In some cases, however, the current senior Republican will be leaving office. For example, Senator Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, would seem the natural candidate to replace New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a powerful body considered key to President George W. Bush's proposals to open more public lands - including wildlife refuges, national forests and national monuments - to energy exploration.

But last night, Senator Murkowski was elected governor of Alaska - putting him in the position of appointing his own successor in the Senate. Though Murkowski told reporters after his win on Tuesday that he had not yet settled on who the new Senate appointee will be, it is expected to be a Republican who favors opening the north slope of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Murkowski's successor is one of several remaining unknowns in the next Congressional session. Two Senate seats remain undecided: in South Dakota, Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson is leading Republican Representative John Thune by less than 1,000 votes in a race close enough to force a mandatory recount.


Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, faces a runoff election in December because she failed to win at least 50 percent of voters. (Photo courtesy Office of Senator Landrieu)
In Louisiana, Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu garnered 47 percent of the vote, short of the 50 percent needed to win the election under state law. Landrieu will now face her closest runner up in a special election December 7 to determine who will hold the Senate seat.

In the House, at least five races remain undecided - not enough to sway the balance of power. In Hawaii, for example, the late Democratic Congresswoman Patsy Mink defeated Republican Bob McDermott, forcing a special election in January to fill this open seat.

Many of the Republican gains in the House were prefaced by redistricting after the 2000 census.

Once every 10 years, nationwide census results are used to determine where population growth requires the creation of new Congressional districts, and areas where declining populations will lose House seats. In the past decade, most growth has occurred in Republican strongholds in the south and western states, giving the Republicans the chance to add several seats.

In four cases, redistricting pitted incumbent House members against each other for possession of a single seat. Republicans won three of those races, and also took seats away from two Democratic incumbents in unchanged districts.


Republican Congresswoman Connie Morella lost the job she has held for 16 years after redistricting and negative campaigning left her vulnerable to Democratic challenger Chris Van Hollen. (Photo courtesy Office of Representative Morella)
Although state and federal lawmakers worked to protect incumbent Congress members when new districts were drawn, in Maryland, a redrawn district may have doomed eight term Congresswoman Connie Morella, a Republican in heavily Democratic Montgomery county. Morella lost last night to Democrat Chris Van Hollen, in a race considered one of a very few bright spots for both Democrats and environmental voters.

But Van Hollen will serve in a House where his pro-environment views, endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters and a variety of conservation groups, may find little voice. The Republican controlled Congress is expected to move rapidly to advance President Bush's agenda, including loosening environmental restrictions on industry, corporations and the military.

Also on the Bush wish list are tax cuts for businesses and investors, a repeal of the estate tax, and increased military spending. The administration has also proposed new restrictions on citizen lawsuits that could make it more difficult to challenge controversial federal actions like the diversion of scare water resources from wildlife to agriculture.

The loss of Senate control will also make it more difficult for Democrats to pursue investigations of Bush administration actions like the creation of the national energy plan. Critics charge that energy industry representatives provided too much input into the plan, while environmental interests were largely shut out of the planning process.

The result is a plan which critics say could prove damaging to the health of public lands, clean air and clean water. Investigations launched by the Senate have forced the disclosure of some, but not all, of the Bush administration's records of its energy planning process, and similar investigations of other controversial administration decisions are now underway.

Without control of the Senate, the Democrats will find it much harder to examine the administration's plans to overhaul some of the nation's most important environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.


Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson won the governor's seat in New Mexico. (Photo courtesy National Renewable Energy Lab)
Across the nation, Democrats did make some gains in gubernatorial races, picking up the governorships of Arizona, Illinois, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In New Mexico, a win by former Clinton era energy secretary Bill Richardson handed that state to the Democrats.

The Democrats failed to win the governor's mansions in Florida and Texas, states where the party had spent millions in hopes of undercutting Republican power.

Republicans won new governorships in Georgia and South Carolina, and hung on to Massachusetts in a tight race. And in Maryland, Republican Paul Ehrlich will become that state's first GOP governor in more than three decades.


Incumbent Democratic Governor Don Siegelman, seeking reelection, has challenged questionable returns from a traditionally Republican district. (Photo by Thinh Nguyen, courtesy office of Governor Siegelman)
In Hawaii, Republican Linda Lingle made political history. Fueled by a well funded campaign blitz of signs and TV ads, the former Maui mayor defeated Lt. Governor Mazie Hirono to become Hawaii's first woman governor and the first Republican to hold the office since 1962.

Several gubernatorial races are still too close to call. In Alabama, both incumbent Democratic Governor Don Siegelman and his opponent Bob Riley, a Republican Representative, are claiming victory in a race marred by questionable counts in one Republican stronghold. In Oregon, Democrat Ted Kulongoski and Republican Kevin Mannix are in a dead heat, each carrying 48 percent of the vote, and in Vermont, Republican Jim Douglas appears to have the advantage over Democrat Doug Racine, though no winner has been declared.