Inside Report: No Democratic Senate

Robert Novak
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Posted: May 03, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Democratic insiders, acknowledging little chance of recapturing the House in 2004, have all but given up hope of winning a Senate majority, unless there is such a transcendent development as an economic collapse.

The early calculation in Democratic circles is for a net loss of four additional Senate seats, extending the present 51-49 Republican majority to 55-45. Democratic seats are in real jeopardy in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, South Dakota and Nevada.

In contrast, Alaska is the only Republican Senate seat up next year that clearly tilts to the Democrats.

FILIBUSTERING JUDGES

The launching of a second, simultaneous Senate Democratic filibuster of federal appellate judicial nominees follows strategy laid down weeks ago by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Just as an increasing number of Republican senators were privately admitting they had no way to break the filibuster against Washington, D.C., lawyer Miguel Estrada, Democrats made clear they also would not permit the Senate to vote on the nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen. That fits the tactics propounded during a secret meeting of Democratic senators, where Kennedy stressed that blocking Estrada must begin, not end, the stopping of President Bush's conservative judicial nominees.

Democrats did permit the confirmation for an appellate judgeship of Ohio's former State Solicitor Jeffrey Sutton though they had enough votes for a filibuster. However, the 41 Democrats voting against Sutton demonstrated their disapproval with Bush's selections for the federal bench.

FIXING CALIFORNIA

Freshman Rep. Devin Nunes, who at age 29 is the second-youngest member of Congress, is trying to devise a public vote that would force the Democratic-controlled California legislature to radically revise the gerrymandered reapportionment of congressional and legislative seats following the 2000 census.

That gerrymander freezes the state's huge House delegation at 33 Democrats and 20 Republicans and guarantees Democratic control of the California legislature through this decade. Nunes wants a state vote as early as the 2004 primary election, but more realistically not until 2006.

Ballot initiatives on reapportionment have fared badly in California in the past, but Nunes is trying to draft a proposal that would not be written off as a partisan Republican ploy. It would require fair guidelines for the legislature in mapping districts, instead of the present system, which all but guarantees re-election of incumbents.

SOLICITING A SENATOR

While the political buzz in Illinois sees former Gov. Jim Edgar as the probable Republican Senate nominee next year, the GOP's national political high command sees only a 50-50 chance that he will run.

Those odds are a considerable improvement over Edgar's frame of mind before President Bush called and asked him to run following Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald's decision not to seek re-election. Edgar, whose two terms as governor ended in 1997, had no intention of returning to public life. National Republican operatives regard Edgar as an overwhelming favorite, with an advantage for Democrats if he does not run.

A footnote: The GOP insiders assess the odds as better than even that Rep. John Thune, narrowly defeated in South Dakota, will try again in 2004 against Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. Thune is being told that Daschle is actually a weaker candidate than Sen. Tim Johnson, the winner in 2002.

GOP'S 'WORST' GOVERNOR

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist has branded Nevada's first-term Gov. Kenny Guinn as the nation's worst Republican governor because of his far-ranging program of $1 billion in higher taxes to balance the state budget.

Like many other state governors, Guinn is proposing "nuisance" taxes -- in his case, higher levies on cigarettes and alcohol. Beyond that, he is backing a gross receipts tax on major business concerns.

Nevada's politically powerful gambling industry, happy not to be Guinn's target, and highly unionized hotel employees support the gross receipts tax. The governor and boisterous casino workers recently joined in a pro-tax rally on the capitol steps.