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Will things really change if Republicans get control of Congress?

Suppose the Republicans took over Congress. What difference would it make?

To hear Democrats anxious to get their core voters out, it would mean the end of civilization as we know it, with Medicare dollars going to pay for arms spending, a leering Bob Packwood in charge of the Senate Finance Committee and the new speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, third in line for the presidency.

To hear Republicans tell it, putting them in control would let them cut the power of the federal government by undoing the excesses of years of Democratic rule. At the very least, they say, they could prevent any new excesses and establish themselves as the party that stood with the American people when Democrats and President Clinton were forcing gridlock on them and protecting the bad old days.

Then there are some scholars who think that whatever it did for the country, Republican control would be good for Congress and especially the House, forcing both parties to treat each other with greater respect and showing Republicans that power imposes responsibilities and can be much less fun than booing from bleachers.

Of course, there is formal control and real control.

Thanks to the filibuster rule, which allows senators to stall action unless 60 of them vote to end debate, nobody is really in control of the Senate unless they have 60 votes, and neither party will get that. But the party in the majority sets the agenda, which the minority tries to thwart, and picks the committee chairmen, who can quash almost any measure they dislike.

More Republicans on Capitol Hill, especially considering the conservative cast of likely newcomers, would make it considerably harder for the Democrats to pass almost anything. There are not likely to be many more John Danforths or John Chafees, senators prepared to make deals and vote with Democrats.

In the House, there are hardly any of that kind of Republican left anymore. As it is, the Democrats have to get 83 percent of their members to vote with them to secure the 218 votes needed to pass anything. If Republicans gained only 20 House seats, Democrats would need 92 percent.

If the Republicans gained 40 seats, they would have an outright majority. They could schedule votes on bills, change the rules and choose committee chairmen.

But it is not likely that much in the way of Republican initiative would become law. The exceptions include a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget, which Democrats have tried to bury; a bill limiting manufacturers' liability for defective products, the only bill that died as a result of a Democratic filibuster; and possibly a line item veto measure.