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In this most bizarre presidential election one thing is certain: when a race is as close as this, neither candidate can claim an overwhelming mandate, and as a result Capitol Hill can become a bigger player in Washington politics than the White House.

Regardless of which candidate ultimately wins the presidency, he is going to have his hands full with Congress. A President Gore would probably have less trouble on the Hill, Republican majority or none. Bush's lack of experience with the procedural mayhem, backroom swap-meets and bizarre political posturing otherwise known as 'the legislative process', combined with his loss of the popular vote, will leave him weaker in relation to the Hill, his party affiliation notwithstanding. Counterintuitive, but there it is.

If there is a flimsy silver lining in the dark cloud which threatens to obscure 'President Dubya', it has to be the makeup of the US Senate, which we're calling effectively 49/51 in favour of the Republicans, regardless of who wins the White House. The best possible case would leave the Senate 50/50, and even there, Veep Cheney would get to break the ties.

We base the call on the obvious fact that if Bush wins, Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman would return to his seat, and if Gore wins, Connecticut Republican Governor John Rowland will undoubtedly appoint a Republican Lieberman-substitute to the Senate; all compounded with the less-certain probability that Republican Slade Gorton will retain his seat in Washington State.

At press time the numbers are: Senator from Micro$oft Gorton with 852,254, vs Democratic would-be Senator from RealNetwork$ Maria Cantwell with 849,057, for a slender, but we think bankable, margin of 3197.

But either way, it won't prevent a slim Republican majority in the Senate. And because the ratio is so close, and because not every Senator votes on every measure, the probability of Veepish tie-breaking is high all the way around, though a Dubya Administration would get a slight numerical advantage, if not a rhetorical one.

Here's how the Senate lays out in relation to the White House:
Bush and Gorton win: 49 Democrats and 51 Republicans, with Cheney breaking occasional ties for the Republicans.
Bush wins and Gorton loses: 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, with Cheney breaking almost daily ties for the Republicans (enter 'Senator Cheney').
Gore and Gorton win: 48 Democrats and 52 Republicans, with Lieberman breaking occasional ties for the Democrats.
Gore wins and Gorton loses: 49 Democrats and 51 Republicans, with Lieberman breaking somewhat more frequent, but still occasional ties for the Democrats.

In other words, Cheney will get to work the Veepish magic on Capitol Hill for Bush more often than Lieberman will get to do the same for Gore.

And this leads us to near parity. If Gore wins, he has a slim margin of both the electoral and popular votes, and therefore a bit more stature as president than Bush could pretend to. This gives a Gore White House a touch more legitimacy and authority among the people, and on Capitol Hill.

If Bush wins, he divides the popular and electoral votes in exactly the wrong way, and this has two unfortunate effects for Republicans. First, a Bush White House can never claim the legitimacy among voters that a President Gore would have; and second, Bush leaves Gore a sympathetic character in the shadows of Washington politics, and gives him considerable power to operate on behalf of Democrats behind the scenes as an unjustly frustrated heir.

Simply put: if Bush wins, the bully pulpit, as Teddy Roosevelt called the White House, becomes divided, and Gore gets to retain a share. After all is said and spun, the fact remains that Gore will have been elected by the American people.

Thus the Republican majority in Congress is absolutely crucial to a President Dubya, but the split down the aisle is now far less marked than it needs to be for him to become an effective leader. 'Senator Cheney' will make up some of the political deficit, but the twin challenges of legitimacy-doubts which are inevitable for any president who loses the popular vote, and overcoming the rhetoric of Al Gore's victim-status, are more than even a seasoned operator like Dick Cheney can be expected to overcome.

The House remains more Republican than the Senate, but that could change under a President Dubya. Republicans get 220 seats; Democrats 211 seats and independents two seats, with two races undecided. Previously there were 222 Republicans to 209 Democrats in the House, so the Dems didn't close the gap as well here as they did in the Senate. The best the Dems can hope for this time around is 220 to 213 with two independents.

But if Bush 'steals' the White House from the Electoral College and Gore retains his lead in the popular vote, we may see some heavy movement towards Democrats in the House when the next election cycle hits in two years' time, or smack in the middle of Dubya's term.

So to prevent a Democratic majority in the House, or a big enough re-shuffle to effectively overcome the Republican majority halfway through his tenure, President Dubya is going to have to run the most Democrat-friendly Republican administration in US history.

His record in Texas suggests that he's more of a deal-maker than a leader anyway, so this odd situation might just suit him, and the nation, quite nicely. ®

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