Capitol Letter: The Zoning Battle

Lawmakers are back home taking the temperature in their districts. How hot is it out there? Well, Republicans are fearful about the slowing economy, and the toll it might take in next year's congressional election. The party holding the White House typically loses seats in the first midterm election, and the Republicans who are already operating with a razor-thin majority in the House can't afford much erosion. The GOP lost 26 seats in 1982 when Ronald Reagan was president and the economy was in the doldrums.

Democrats are nervous, too. They spent a record $95 million last year to regain control of the House, and only picked up one seat. Next year will be even harder for them to make gains. The redrawing of congressional district lines that occurs every 10 years following the census will take effect in 2002, and most analysts expect the GOP to emerge with an advantage. Redistricting is a highly political process, and in most of the big, pivotal states (with California the exception) Republican governors are positioned to make sure their party comes out on top.

Typically, no more than 30 seats (out of 435) are truly competitive. Redistricting doubles that number, creating both peril and opportunity. This is trench warfare. The parties go seat-by-seat to pick their fights and defend their assets. Republicans will gain seats as a result of redistricting in the Rust Belt, an area that was once solidly Democratic. Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, who heads the GOP's campaign committee, predicts a pickup of five or six seats in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio. The Democrats expect to cancel out the GOP gains by picking up a total of four seats via friendly governors in North Carolina and Georgia and from the heavily Hispanic residents of Arizona and California.

That means that all eyes are on Texas, where a disputed redistricting plan could tip the balance. "Given how Republican the state is, every white Democrat is in jeopardy if [the Republicans] control the map," says a Democratic strategist. The Texas state legislature adjourned without passing a plan, and the governor, Republican Rick Perry, refused to call a special session because he didn't think the Democrat-controlled House and GOP-led Senate could ever agree. A House redistricting committee recommended a plan that would have protected every incumbent's district, and added two new seats--one north of Dallas that would be Republican, and one in south Texas with a large Hispanic population that would likely be Democratic. The Senate redistricting panel recommended what Democrats labeled a "dream map" for Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay, which would have created at least four new Republican districts and split minority populations in such a way that would probably violate the Voting Rights Act.

There are various skirmishes in state courts, including a Democratic allegation that Republicans were tipped off about Governor Perry's decision not to call a special session. Six minutes after Perry's letter was handdelivered to congressional leaders, lawyers from Baker Botts (the law firm of Bush loyalist James Baker) filed a lawsuit in a Republican judge's court--an apparent effort to stake out a friendly venue for the redistricting battle.

Lower court wins could improve one or the other side's standing when the competing visions for redistricting go before a three-judge federal panel in East Texas, which has set a trial date in October. The likely results range from maintaining the status quo, which the Democrats want, to a gain of as many as six seats for the Republicans. In a state where no Democrat holds a statewide office, the Democratic advantage of 17 to 13 in the congressional delegation seems improbable to hold up over time. But the court is made up of two Clinton appointees and one Reagan appointee. Democrats are optimistic. "The smart money is on the status quo," says a Democratic strategist.

Democrats have a now-or-never attitude about next year's election. "If we can't win in 2002, we're in for a long, dry spell," says a Democrat who monitors the party's congressional prospects. After trying three times to recapture control (in '96, '98 and 2000), a fourth loss would likely prompt a wave of retirements among older members in safe seats and make regaining the majority even more elusive.

PATIENTS' RIGHTS

The Congress is gone, and President Bush is in Crawford, Texas, but lobbyists working on a patient's bill of rights are not taking a vacation. They're busy trying to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions so that the bill does not die in conference committee before it can reach Bush's desk. A lobbyist involved in the process says there is a sense of urgency that was not apparent before. "The longer this bill hangs out there, the greater the awareness will be that this is not the answer to the problem." The version Bush favors would actually roll back consumer access to state courts, and the benefits the bill mandates--like access to emergency rooms and clinical trials--are now routinely offered by most HMOs. Because of a wave of negative publicity, HMOs are denying much less care than they once did. The real problem, not touched in any version of the bill, is the financial incentives HMOs give to doctors to limit referrals to specialists and high-priced tests, which denies care the patients often don't realize they should be getting.

KELLEY ON BUSH

Author Kitty Kelley sat demurely through a lengthy and glowing introduction of herself before a lunch gathering at Georgetown's 1789 restaurant on Wednesday. Then the writer known for her unauthorized biographies of such notables as Jackie Onassis, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor and the British royal family turned the tables, declaring saucily that speakers should be made to listen to their failures, not their successes. To howls of appreciative laughter, Kelley regaled the crowd of women with her rewritten resume: "A middle-aged windbag who only ventures out of her cave every four years when she has a book to push." In 20-some years, she said, she had only published six books, "which is hardly prolific unless you're a donkey. Then you're supposed to be slow and plodding." Kelley, whose last three books have hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, recalled her first book, "America's Spas," which went into "instant oblivion" and served mainly as an excuse to visit fat farms around the country. As a biographer, she has alienated everyone "from the high and mighty to the rich and famous," and says she's about as popular with the ruling class as the IRS. "I am a lawyer's best friend because I attract lawsuits like a kitty cat gets rodents," Kelley concluded. She is currently working on a book about the Bush dynasty.

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