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FLORIDA HELPS CARRY CLINTON // But GOP keeps control of Congress // Voters return a divided government

Voters gave President Clinton the second term he wanted but insisted on keeping a Republican Congress and said they thought divided government was working just fine.

Giving the Republicans control of the House and Senate again will prevent either party from going to extremes, they told exit pollsters.

The Democrats snared a few seats Tuesday, but the GOP held onto the Senate and appeared to keep a majority in the House _ the first time since 1930 that Republicans have held a majority in both houses for two terms in a row. It's also the first time in history that a Democratic president has been elected with a GOP Congress.

A Republican majority means Newt Gingrich would almost certainly be returned to power as House speaker, although 60 percent of Tuesday's voters said they don't like him. The Senate leader will be Mississippi's Trent Lott, who is generally thought to be more conservative than predecessor Bob Dole.

After the sweeping changes made by voters in 1992 and 1994, the voting Tuesday caused hardly a ripple.

Florida was typical, its House delegation unchanged with 15 Republicans and eight Democrats. In the state's most high-profile race House race _ to replace Tampa Democrat Sam Gibbons _ Democrat Jim Davis defeated three-time candidate Mark Sharpe, the Republican.

It was a good night for incumbents everywhere.

In one of the hottest races, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat, held onto his seat after a fierce battle with popular Republican Gov. William Weld.

Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina once again defeated black architect Harvey Gantt.

Sen. Strom Thurmond won an eighth term at age 93.

Even with the Republicans still in power, the Senate will be a very different place because of the newcomers replacing 14 senators who retired.

Bob Dole's seat went to another Republican, Sam Brownback. The Kansas seat left open by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum also stayed in GOP hands with Pat Roberts.

Sam Nunn of Georgia was replaced by another Democrat, Max Cleland, a triple amputee who once headed the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Paul Simon of Illinois was replaced by Democrat Richard Durbin, a congressman known for his fight to ban smoking on domestic airline flights.

Bill Bradley of New Jersey also retired, to be replaced by Democratic Rep. Robert Toricelli after a shockingly expensive and nasty race.

In Louisiana, the state elected its first woman senator, Democrat Mary Landrieu, for the open seat vacated by retiring Democrat Bennett Johnston.

A few Senate seats switched hands.

The Republicans picked up Howell Heflin's seat in Alabama with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The Republicans also took David Pryor's seat in Arkansas. That victory, by conservative congressman Tim Hutchinson, was something of an embarrassment for Clinton, whose home state is the last in the South to turn Republican.

Republicans held a 53-47 majority in the Senate going into Election Day and were assured of at least 51 seats as voting continued.

The final numbers in the House won't be clear until the last of the West Coast races are in, but most of the 73 freshmen who marched into Washington in 1995 as part of Gingrich's revolution kept their seats. The GOP's 18-seat majority appeared to narrow, however.

Voters may not care about party affiliation, but it makes a tremendous difference in Washington. The party in power gets the big offices in the Capitol and the committee chairmanships. Theoretically, it can pass or kill any bill it wants, if everyone sticks together.

Clinton can expect the Republicans to continue their investigations into Whitewater, the use of FBI files, the firing of the White House travel staff and the Democrats' campaign fund-raising.

But Clinton and the Republicans seem to have learned the hard way that voters hate partisan sniping and gridlock. Voters said Tuesday they had not forgotten the government shutdown last winter.

So both parties might move to the middle, having failed so miserably at the extremes.

The GOP and the president will be dealing for the first time with the line-item veto, which will likely make negotiations on bills even more intricate. It allows the president to strike specific items _ pork, for instance _ that in the past have slipped through in giant spending bills.

And after such a rocky start in 1995, the House Republicans have learned that compromise is not a dirty word. This year, Congress and Clinton worked together to pass welfare reform, crack down on illegal immigration, pass a telecommunications bill and protect health care.

Now Clinton will want Congress to work with him on his promises to salvage Medicare and Medicaid, protect the environment and leave his legacy by improving education.

But Republicans don't usually agree with his philosophy of activist government. They'll want to pursue their agenda of less government, lower taxes and turning power over to the states.

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