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Union Leaders Foresee Softening of GOP Stands

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The millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers the national teachers' unions threw behind a slate of mostly Democratic candidates in last week's races failed to end the Republicans' congressional majorities.

Still, union leaders predict they will be on better terms with the GOP because party leaders are backing down from their 1994 calls for education funding cuts and the abolition of the Department of Education.

"It does represent a softening," Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said. "The far right doesn't come out as the same kind of power it was in 1994."

"If folks look at it and see what the voters are saying about education, we'll be able to work in a nonpartisan manner," added Robert F. Chase, the president the National Education Association.

While Republicans maintained control of the House, while losing seats, and slightly padded their lead in the Senate, Mr. Chase said voters voiced suspicions of conservative ideas such as vouchers, parental rights, and charter schools without public oversight in state races. In addition, they handily re-elected President Clinton, who positioned himself as the education candidate throughout the campaign.

"Where they had the opportunity to vote directly on education, the message is clear: We need to be working in the public sector to improve schools," Mr. Chase said. "Members of Congress saw that this was what the general population was looking for."

Moderates' Role

Republican moderates, such as Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, hope to persuade their colleagues to back off the conservative rhetoric aimed against federal spending that dominated the first 18 months of GOP control of the 104th Congress.

"We have to have a real heart-to-heart talk with [the leadership], and then we have to talk about the whole group," Mr. Goodling said in an interview in York, Pa., shortly after he overwhelmingly won re-election in the district that first elected him in 1974. Mr. Goodling is in line to retain the chairmanship of the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee.

It appeared that the GOP had claimed 224 House districts as of late last week, with several races still to be decided by runoff elections, recounts, or absentee ballots. The Republicans hold 235 seats in the current House.

The party added at least one seat to the 53 they currently hold in the Senate, with the Oregon race hinging on absentee ballots.

The GOP kept control of the House mostly by returning veteran members and minimizing losses among the ranks of its 70 freshmen. In the Senate, all but one GOP incumbent won re-election, while Republicans won three states held by retiring Democrats. If Republican Gordon Smith holds on to his slim lead in the Oregon race, the GOP will add two seats to its Senate majority.

Unions' Scorecard

In a campaign season that proved to favor incumbents, the NEA and the AFT failed to make much of an impact with their phone banks, literature, and armies of volunteers. ("Teachers' Unions Flex Political Muscles as Election Nears," Oct. 16, 1996.)

Of the 103 challengers the unions supported, 18 won, according to an analysis by John E. Berthoud, the vice president of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a think tank that is critical of teachers' unions. That record looks better, however, considering that 94 percent of House incumbents won re-election.

Reps. Frank Riggs of California and Steve Chabot of Ohio, both Republicans, retained their seats after fighting back unions' volunteers and persistent AFL-CIO attack ads. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, also won re-election despite being a target of NEA direct mail.

But the NEA's ads and direct-mail campaigns against three other House Republican incumbents--Peter I. Blute of Massachusetts, Frank A. Cremeans of Ohio, and Fred Heineman of North Carolina--may have contributed to their defeats.

Even where the unions could claim victories, it is doubtful they swayed the outcome, some political experts said.

Mr. Cremeans lost in a district that has been decided by narrow margins for three consecutive elections, said Alfred Tuchfarber, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati and the director of the Ohio Poll. In 1994, then-Rep. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, lost to Mr. Cremeans by 2 percentage points. This year, the outcome was reversed.

Because the vote totals changed so little, "there's no evidence that the unions were a major factor," Mr. Tuchfarber said. Even if the unions say they provided Mr. Strickland with his winning margin, "there are a lot of other groups that can make the same claim."

But at least one winning campaign said local teachers played a vital role in its victory.

"Teachers did a lot of the small jobs that give a candidate a big win," said Greg Rideout, the campaign manager for Bob Etheridge, North Carolina's Democratic schools superintendent, who defeated freshman GOP Rep. David Funderburk. Teachers supporting Mr. Etheridge handed out literature at polling places, worked in phone banks, and talked up the candidate to their colleagues, Mr. Rideout said.

Committee Lineup

Mr. Funderburk was the only member of the education committee in either the House or the Senate to lose. Most incumbents won without major problems.

Mr. Goodling won his south-central Pennsylvania seat with 63 percent of the vote. Republican Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, both of California, won re-election and are in line to retain control of subcommittees they chair on K-12 and higher education policy.

Top Democrats from the panel, including Reps. William L. Clay of Missouri, George Miller of California, and Dale E. Kildee of Michigan, all won handily.

On the Senate side, Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., an outspoken liberal member of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, won his re-election bid by a wide margin. Rep. Jack Reed, D-R.I., captured the Senate seat vacated by fellow Democrat Sen. Claiborne Pell, long one of the Senate's leading players on education.

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