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RETIREMENT OF SENATOR A BOON TO GOP

Sen. Bill Bradley's sudden retirement announcement not only increases the likelihood that Democrats will remain a Senate minority next year - it also improves Republican chances of reaching the magic number of 60.

That's how many votes it takes to end a filibuster - the main parliamentary weapon available to Senate Democrats as they try to stall and temper Republican drives to cut social spending, taxes and government regulation.Bradley, D-N.J., the basketball star and Rhodes scholar once viewed as a potential Democratic president, said Wednesday in Newark he would not seek a fourth term next year. He said both political parties were on the wrong track and Americans had lost faith in the process.

Bradley won't challenge President Clinton in the Democratic primaries but, asked Thursday if he would run as an independent, he said: "I have not ruled that out. I will go out and continue the dialogue with the American people and see what happens."

Bradley was the sixth Democrat to decide against seeking re-election and may not be the last. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., a six-term veteran who is 76 and has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, is considered likely to retire. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., is planning to announce a decision one way or the other by fall.

They are the last two in doubt. "We will not have any other surprises," Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said.

Democrats currently are down 54-46 after post-election defections by two senators who had run and won as Democrats: Ben Night-horse Campbell of Colorado and Richard Shelby of Alabama. Only one Republican, Hank Brown of Colorado, has announced retirement plans.

Kerrey said he was confident New Jersey would send another Democrat to the Senate. But the National Republican Senatorial Committee smelled blood and pledged to spend the maximum $710,000 permitted in pursuit of the seat.

"I'm certain that we can beat any Democrat that steps forward," said NRSC chairman Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y. He called Bradley's retirement a golden opportunity in New Jersey for the GOP, which already has a popular statewide officeholder in Gov. Christie Whitman.

"To have six senators in one party retire, and only one in the other party, is an awfully good sign for the Republicans," said national party chairman Haley Barbour. "We're now looking at six open Democratic seats, every one . . . in a state that we will begin the race competitively" with a strong op-por-tunity to win.

Though they are in the minority, Senate Democrats retain some clout as a result of Senate rules that require supermajorities to cut off debate and approve constitutional amendments. Further erosion could rob them of the limited impact they still have.

This year Senate Democrats helped defeat the GOP-sponsored balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. They have also managed to stall some bills and reshape others by denying Republicans the 60 votes they need for cloture, or ending debate so action can be taken.