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GOP CONTROL OF SENATE WOULD BRING RETURN OF GRIDLOCK

The common wisdom has it that the Democrats are going to do so badly in the November elections that the Republicans will not only substantially increase their numbers in Congress but even capture control of the Senate.

The very possibility has led to visions of a return to divided government, which prevailed during the Bush administration and the last two years of the Reagan administration with a Democratic-controlled Congress and a GOP-controlled White House.Whether you like this idea or not depends on which party you belong to and whether you believe in an activist government or one that is stalemated.

Most political consultants predict a Democratic Senate loss of from three to five seats. But a few optimistic GOP advisers hold out the prospect of a switch of seven seats, which would give the GOP the 51-49 majority needed for control. The GOP also seems likely to gain dozens of seats in the House, enough for philosophical if not numerical control.

A new CBS News-New York Times poll indicates that only 25 percent of voters surveyed approve of the way Congress handles its responsibilities. Significantly, only 37 percent say their own representatives deserve re-election.

Coupled with the tradition that the party in power loses seats in off-year elections, this is grim news for Democrats. They have far more incumbents in both houses up for re-election this year than do the Republicans.

What would two years of a GOP-dominated Senate and House do to the Clinton presidency? To the country? To the legislative agenda?

Conservative New York Times columnist William Safire indulged his imagination recently to suggest what might happen under such circumstances. Compromise was not mentioned: He foresaw a return to the tired GOP agenda of the past decade.

Safire predicted that balanced budget and term-limit amendments and a line-item veto would go to the top of the agenda and pass. Marginal health care tinkering favored by the GOP would pass but not the substantive reform guaranteeing universal coverage and controlling costs sought by the president.

In Safire's dream, taxes would be cut, the cap on mortgage deductions would be lowered, and tax-free savings accounts would be encouraged. And free trade would get a boost.

This assumes that once in the minority, the Democrats would all go to sleep, to be awakened only long enough to vote "aye" when their Republican masters ordered them to. Under this scenario, no Democrat dares to do what the GOP has been trying for two years to do - block whatever the majority wants through procedural tactics, most notably the threat of a filibuster. The president himself has nothing to say. Fat chance.

Safire recycles a list of old Reagan-Bush favorites, like constitutional amendments that would take years to ratify and have little practical effect on policy. If Congress wanted to balance the budget, it has always been free to do so; if voters don't like their representatives, they have always been free to toss them out.

The list also gives the last-minute, half-baked GOP alternative to Democratic health reforms an undeserved seriousness; a presidential veto would seem inevitable. It returns to the familiar, all-purpose GOP tax cut doctrine aimed at helping out rich folks that didn't work in 1992.

And the global free trade pact that would supposedly be encouraged under Safire's scenario is currently being blocked not by Democrats but by Senate Republican leader Bob Dole.

Except for free trade, this fictional productive Congress would mostly concentrate on legislation on which President Clinton and congressional Democrats already have recorded their disagreement with the Republicans. And that is inescapably a prescription for a return to gridlock.

As it is, the president has had difficulty getting many of his major programs through a Congress dominated by his own party. There are many political reasons for this, not the least of which is that the Democratic margin is not large enough to compensate for conservative party members who essentially think and vote like Repub-li-cans.

If you believe the two parties bicker too much now, wait until you watch a virtually evenly divided Senate controlled by the so-called loyal opposition.

A GOP Senate would almost certainly mean the end of Clinton's legislative achievements. Yes, there are some, including the budget plan that is reducing the deficits and the new crime bill.

This would obviously hurt the president's prospects for re-election. But it wouldn't be such a good thing for the Republicans either.

Their obstructionism, now concealed behind more-or-less believable policy arguments, would be out in the open. It would be their responsibility to produce, not simply oppose. And produce they could not.

In the CBS-New York Times poll, the recent partisan warfare has given Sen. Dole a more negative image, just as it has undercut the president. A year ago, Dole was viewed favorably by 28 percent and unfavorably by only 17 percent. Now 27 percent view him favorably, and 27 percent have an unfavorable view.

Two years of divided government would certainly air the issues of the coming presidential election. It would also revive the do-nothingism that American voters thought they left behind when they elected Clinton only two years ago.