US elections: I get the message - Clinton

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The Independent Online
A humiliated President Bill Clinton and the new Republican masters of Capitol Hill yesterday talked peace and bipartisan compromise, but prepared for the inevitable battles ahead. The mid-term electoral earthquake has given the Republicans control of both chambers of the US Congress for the first time since 1954.

``I accept my share of the responsibility'' for the disaster, a chastened Mr Clinton declared, promising to do his utmost to work with the Republicans. Earlier, speaking to the President by telephone, the new Senate Majority leader, Senator Bob Dole, made a similar pledge, to co-operate ``wherever we can''.

Even the pugnacious Speaker-to-be, Newt Gingrich, of Georgia, sounded an uncharacteristic note of conciliation, saying: ``I don't think we'll tackle things that guarantee a fight.''

But the risk of more of the gridlock that paralysed the outgoing Congress in its closing weeks is likely to grow, especially as the 1996 presidential elections move on to the horizon. Mr Clinton now finds himself in exactly the position as his predecessor, George Bush: facing a Congress in hostile hands. Like Mr Bush, he could be forced into heavy use of the presidential veto to block Republican legislation.

A first test will come later this month, when the outgoing House reassembles to ratify the Gatt agreement. If that passes, the two sides have to tackle a host of issues from tax cuts to health and welfare reform, and a possible Republican bid to cut social provisions from the $30bn ( pounds 18.75bn) crime bill, passed last August. At a White House news conference, Mr Clinton signalled his readiness for a deal on welfare. But he said he would fight policies that would expand the deficit, or repeat ``the failed policies'' of Reaganism.

With the final returns all but in, the Republicans had swept the board. Eight victories in the field, plus yesterday's long-expected cross-over by sitting Democratic Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, gave them a 53-47 edge in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, they have a 230-204 majority, a net gain of 52 - so the sharply conservative Mr Gingrich will become the first Republican Speaker in 40 years. He replaces Washington state's Tom Foley - the first Speaker to be voted out since 1860.

The map of state governors has been turned upside down. There will be at least 30 Republicans in the 50 state houses, 11 more than before. Some of the country's most famous Democrats, including Mario Cuomo in New York and Ann Richards of Texas, went down, leaving only one of the eight most populous states - Florida - with a Democratic governor. Given the organisational machinery that governors control, this will be another handicap for a weakened Mr Clinton as he prepares for what looks like an uphill battle for re-election.

Financial markets, scenting tax cuts and less interventionist policies from a Republican-dominated Washington, responded warmly to the poll results, with stock prices surging higher before profit-taking. Analysts are convinced the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates next week.

The White House was putting the best gloss possible on the disaster. ``They sent a clear message - and I got it,'' Mr Clinton said. The White House Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta, listed ethics reform and welfare as possible areas of agreement. But there was no concealing the colossal setback for an unpopular president whose campaigning for Democratic candidates often did more harm than good. His lack of authority could generate a challenge from within the Democrats in 1996.

Meanwhile, Senator Alfonse D'Amato, an arch-foe of Mr Clinton, will take over the Senate Banking Committee, guaranteeing fresh probing of the presidential couple's financial dealings in Arkansas.